Save money on your next flight

Skyscanner is the world’s leading flight search engine, helping you find the cheapest flights to destinations all over the world.

Hawaii is known across the world for its gorgeous beaches, ideal surfing conditions, and monster waves that draw daring big wave surfers hoping to ride giants like the deadly Banzai Pipeline and Jaws.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: The biggest waves in Hawaii can be found at Peahi on Maui, known as Jaws. Other big wave spots include Pipeline on Oahu and Waimea Bay on Oahu’s North Shore.

In this comprehensive guide, we will cover everything you need to know about the top big wave spots in Hawaii, what makes them so massive, when the huge swells hit, what it takes to surf these giants, epic rides from the pros, and more.

Jaws (Peahi) – Home of the Heaviest Wave in Hawaii

Location and Formation

Jaws, also known as Peahi in Hawaiian, is located off the north central coast of Maui. This famous big wave surfing spot sits outside of the small town of Paia and is home to some of the biggest, heaviest waves in Hawaii and the world.

Jaws forms due to the intense storms in the North Pacific that send huge swells towards Hawaii from November through March. These swells hit the deep water reef at Peahi and jack up into towering 50-60 foot waves due to the ocean depth and shape of the reef below.

Optimal Conditions

For Jaws to reach its thundering potential, a few key conditions need to come together. First, there needs to be a strong storm or series of storms churning up waves over deep water in the North Pacific.

Next, the swell direction has to line up just right to send the energy directly towards Jaws rather than other Hawaiian spots. The period, or the time between waves, needs to be over 20 seconds to build monster sized waves.

And finally, the winds around Maui need to be light and offshore to allow the faces of the waves to form cleanly.

According to statistics from Surfline, Jaws needs a minimum 25-30 foot swell to start breaking. Once it surpasses the 40 foot mark, you’ll see the biggest, heaviest waves on the planet rising up and crashing down with bone-crushing force.

The biggest wave ever ridden at Jaws was a 70 footer by Garrett McNamara in 2011 that earned him a world record.

Riding Jaws

Riding the giant waves at Jaws takes immense skill, courage, and preparation. Only the most experienced big wave surfers even attempt to ride waves here. Surfers use custom made surfboards that are thicker and heavier to help them descend quickly down the 50 foot wave faces.

They wear inflatable vests, carry emergency oxygen, and train extensively to prepare. Despite the dangers, each winter many surfers make the treacherous paddle out to challenge themselves against the merciless peaks at Peahi.

A few legendary rides at Jaws like Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama’s tandem ride in 2000 put this break on the map. Top surfers like Kai Lenny, Billy Kemper, Justine Dupont, Paige Alms, and Maui’s Billy Kemper dominate many of the epic sessions here when conditions align.

Watching in person or on video, seeing the liquid mountains folding over as riders scratch their way down the faces is a truly jaw dropping spectacle.

With its incredibly shaped waves that can tower as high as a 10 story building, Jaws has certainly earned its reputation as home to the heaviest waves in Hawaii. It takes the perfect blend of factors for this spot to awaken, but when it does, Peahi is undisputedly one of the most terrifying and awe-inspiring wave venues in the world.

Banzai Pipeline – Most Famous and Dangerous Wave in the World

Pipeline’s Unique Setup

The Banzai Pipeline, often just called “Pipeline”, is located on the North Shore of O’ahu, Hawaii. What makes Pipeline so famous and feared is its unique reef setup. As waves roll in from the open ocean, the reef causes them to jack up and form huge, thick, hollow barrels right as they begin breaking.

This barreling shape has made Pipeline one of the ultimate proving grounds for professional surfers wanting to push their limits.

According to the Encyclopedia of Surfing (1), Pipeline reaches perfection between 8-12 feet with strong trade winds grooming the wave face. At this size, the wave barrels and tubes for over 150 yards, allowing experienced surfers to ride completely inside the wave’s curl for an extended period of time.

Rides like this are considered the holy grail of surfing.

When Pipeline Gets Big

During the winter months, large North Pacific storms send swell towards Hawaii, lighting up Pipeline and the rest of the North Shore. Double overhead (10-15 foot faces) and even triple overhead (15-20 foot faces) are not uncommon. At this size, Pipeline becomes extremely critical and dangerous.

Only the most skilled big wave surfers have any business being out there.

According to Surfline’s forecast history (2), the largest waves Pipeline has seen in recent years was during the 2015-2016 El Niño. The biggest day was January 14th, 2016 when the face height reached 25-30 feet with 15 second interval swells!

Needless to say, waves of this magnitude cause tremendous damage when they break, destroying surfboards and bones alike.

Epic Rides and Devastating Wipeouts

When Pipeline delivers, it creates opportunities for incredible athletic feats. Take Kelly Slater’s wave in the 2016 Pipe Masters for example. The 11-time world champ somehow scored a rare backdoor barrel and managed to stand up completely inside the tube for a few seconds (3).

It was a perfectly executed ride that earned a nearly impossible 10 point ride from the judges.

But the danger is always lurking when surfing Pipeline. In 2004, professional surfer Donavon Frankenreiter experienced one of the worst wipeouts in history at Pipeline (4). After trying to punch through a gnarly barrel section, Donavon free fell from the top of the wave and was rag dolled on the reef for a dozen waves.

It’s a miracle he survived with only heavy bruising instead of broken bones.

Waimea Bay – Legendary Big Wave Surfing Spot on the North Shore

Quiksilver Big Wave Invitational

Waimea Bay is home to the prestigious Quiksilver Big Wave Invitational, one of the most renowned big wave surf contests in the world. The competition is held whenever the massive winter swells roll into Waimea, with wave faces reaching up to 60 feet tall.

The bay’s intense waves and dangerous conditions mean the contest is only held a few times each decade when the conditions allow the world’s best to challenge themselves on the gigantic walls of water.

Past winners of the event include legends like Mark Healey (2011) and Greg Long (2016), highlighting how Waimea rewards technique, bravery and skill. Surfers are judged not just on the size of the waves they ride, but their ability to make seemingly impossible late drops, thread dangerous tubing sections, and survive ferocious wipeouts.

Massive but Makeable

While the waves at Waimea can grow to titanic proportions, the bay is unique in that it can also produce rideable and makeable surf on otherwise giant days. When monumental northwest swells align with light trade winds, the wave still offers steep drops and stunning barrels, but lacks the closing-out intensity of other big wave spots.

This combination of ridable shape and enormous size is why Waimea Bay is considered the proving grounds of big wave surfing.

On the biggest days, Waimea breaks on an outside reef where only the most experienced watermen and women can paddle and survive. On mid-sized swells of 15-25 feet, the inside bowl offers thrilling rides where advanced surfers can catch waves and get barreled while watching the pros tackle the outer peak.

Riding Waimea on the Big Days

The sight of massive surf pounding Waimea Bay as spectators watch in awe from seaside cliffs is an iconic image of big wave surfing. On XXL days when XX-foot waves blast the North Shore, seasoned veterans make the paddle out to challenge themselves against the thundering walls of water.

The takeoff at Waimea requires impeccable timing and the ability to scratch directly into waves twice the size of the surfer. A successful ride means threading impossibly fast barrel sections between foamballs large enough to swallow a house.

And when one does get caught inside the impact zone, survival depends on enduring five or six story tall walls of whitewater landing on your head.

It takes a lifetime of dedication to be able to ride these waves, which is why Waimea Bay represents the pinnacle big wave proving ground for the world’s best surfers. Those who make the drop and exit the barrel at Waimea on massive days cement their legacy as all-time watermen and women.

Other Notable Big Wave Spots in Hawaii

Mavericks – Oahu’s Famed Left

Situated on the North Shore of Oahu, the legendary big wave break called Mavericks drops into a deepwater reef like you wouldn’t believe. This behemoth wave cranks up waves in the 30 to 50 foot range when the swells pulse in huge during the Hawaii big wave season between November and March.

Getting barreled in “Mavs” is the stuff of legends amongst Hawaii’s brave big wave chargers. The left breaking wave jackets up over razor-sharp shallow reef, making for adrenaline-charged wipeout carnage if you don’t make the drop or get sucked up the face.

To catch the wave you need sound ocean judgement, solid paddling to match the wave’s speed, and a fearless commitment to drop in at just the right split second. Mavericks has gained world fame, with regular appearances in surf films and magazines showcasing it’s awesome power.

Sunset Beach – North Shore Power and Beauty

Also on Oahu’s gorgeous North Shore you’ll find the renowned Sunset Beach, which lives up to its name by providing surfers epic views of colorful Hawaiian sunsets when riding the waves here. But don’t let the tranquil name fool you – this spot can turn into a churning cauldron of huge, barreling waves when the northern hemisphere winter swells arrive.

Sunset Beach features several breaks off the point and reef that can generate giant curling barrels reaching 25-30 feet on thumping winter swells. The outside reef breaks called “Backdoor” and “Phantoms” are home to tube rides almost too good to be true.

That is, if you have the skill and courage to drop into the liquid mountains roaring ashore here when conditions get “epic”.

Riding giants at Sunset Beach is revered as a proving ground for Hawaii’s most dedicated big wave surfers. But it’s extremely critical – get caught inside or blow a late drop and you’ll get rag-dolled across coral heads.

Still, the dream of snagging one of the spitting tubes at Sunset keeps Hawaii’s best returning year after year in search of a magic session.

Outer Reefs – Secret Heavy Water Playgrounds

Beyond the famous big wave surf spots close to shore, Hawaii has an nearly unlimited supply of serious heavy water out on the reefs scattered offshore. These “outer reefs” only break when conditions get huge, but once they turn on they are capable of waves in the 30-50+ foot range that are essentially impossible to paddle into.

To catch waves at these outer reef mutant surf spots you either need to have a jet ski on standby to tow-surf them, or have a really fast boat to access them when conditions are right. That’s why some of these spots remain “secret spots” amongst the Hawaii big wave tribe – it takes serious resources, skill and connections to score one of these rarely-ridden giants.

During the biggest El Niño winters, swells can line up perfectly on the outer reefs and produce mind-blowing giant surf capable of providing the ride of your life – if it doesn’t kill you first. Photos from these session filter out occasionally and become instant legends, but few will ever know the exact GPS coordinates for most of these heavy water playgrounds.


As you can see, Hawaii offers some of the biggest, heaviest waves on the planet for elite big wave surfers seeking the ride of their lives.

While spots like Jaws, Pipeline, and Waimea Bay attract most of the attention from the pros, you never know when one of Oahu or Maui’s outer reefs will turn on and deliver giant, perfect barrels for the surfers willing to venture out on the right swell.

Sharing is caring!

Similar Posts