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Skeleton Bay, Namibia — Google Earth

Google Maps, Satellites & Surfing

JT White
JT White
Oct 21, 2014 · 7 min read

Google Earth has become an essential tool for surfers everywhere. In the following essay, I take a look at how the tool is used by the surf community and how the recent acquisition of Skybox Imaging by Google could reshape the relationship between the surf community and their most precious resource, waves

Skeleton Bay — Namibia

In 2010, Surfing Magazine hosted their annual Google Earth Challenge. Think of it as crowdsourced wave discovery, where armchair warriors jump onto their computer and tried to find the next Pipeline or Kirra. During this particular year, Brian Gable, a software developer from Irvine, CA, stumbled across a sand point break within the Namib Desert, and won the contest. As part of the prize for winning, Surfing Magazine took Brian and a group of professional surfers to this inhospitable stretch of coastline and published an article on their discovery.

What did the group find? Well, it turns out that Angola was hiding one of the greatest sand-bottom lefthand point breaks in the world. Since its unveiling, it has made headlines across the surfing world for its length and perfection.

New Wave Discoveries

When it comes down to it, discovering new waves depends on the ability to see. Thick, unruly forests in Costal B.C., offshore islands in New England, and private property in Mid-coast California stand between a surfer and the ocean. Physical barriers greatly limited surfers ability to find new waves. Google Earth’s greatest gift is the dematerialization of these obstacles.

But lets back up — we have become so familiar with Google Earth user-interface that its easy to forget how incredibly elegant it is compared to its predecessors. Before, the most deft surfers used aerial imagery services such as Microsoft’s TerraServer, combined with regional bathymetric and nautical maps to peer beyond physical restraints to see new coastlines. But these technologies were slow and ugly, their cumbersome user-interfaces restricted use. And the data they contained was siloed, incomplete and expensive.

Then, in 2004 Google bought Keyhole, Inc, a company funded by the CIA, that superimposed satellite imagery onto a 3D globe. With the added resources of Google, flying through miles of unspoiled wilderness, scouring the coastline for a undiscovered reef or cobblestone point break had became mindlessly easy and free. Many of Google Earth’s images are sharp and detailed, so good that one can see the wisp of a wave’s lip, and a surfer sitting in the line up waiting for the next set. Apparently, images could be even sharper if not for a legislative restriction on satellite images. Google Earth’s database covers a large area of the developed world and allows one to search through years of images. On a platter of targeted ads, it’s freedom that Google has served to surfers.

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Snapper Rocks — Google Earth Image


But, like all technologies, Google Earth has its limitations. The dataset is huge, but also far from complete. Areas of the world that are sparsely populated, and thus still have many waves to be discovered, don’t have imagery detailed enough to see wave formations. This shortcoming hides large portions of wave rich zone’s such as southern Chile, Western Africa, the Mentawai’s, coastal British Columbia and the Atlantic Maritimes.

And even more limiting, for areas that Google Earth does have high resolution coverage, oftentimes the images do not capture moments of good wave conditions. This absense disguises the coast so that a surfer would never know if a wave existed. Take the photo below for example: this is Pipeline, generally considered to be the best wave on the planet (except on this day that Google Earth took it’s picture). Mavericks, considered to be one of the best big wave surf spots in the world, has had over 30 images taken of its lineup over a 33 year span (from 1991 to 2014). Yet, none of these images show a ridable day.

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Pipeline — Google Earth

In my analysis of the top 50 waves across the world, the percentage that Google Earth captures images with waves is surprisingly low.

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Additionally, the image cycle for Google Earth is extremely slow. On average only one new picture is added per wave/per year. This issue is a side effect of extremely old satellite equipment. Some of the satellites are more than 10 years old. So, the chance of them capturing an image of a unknown wave with a large tide swing, small swell window, or infrequent swell activity, is somewhat akin to winning the lottery.

So, while Google Earth does sometimes provide visual access to unknown waves such as Skeleton Bay, it is still in its infant stages as a tool used to discover new waves.


Enter Skybox Imaging, a satellite imaging company started by four graduate students studying aerospace engineering at Stanford University. Skybox designed and manufactured a new type of imaging satellite, one that is much smaller, easier to repair and upgrade, and less expensive. Skybox’s images are also extremely high quality images, with more detail and information per image than traditional Google Earth images. Skybox launched the first of these satellites this past fall, and a second this summer. Take a look at one of their images below and this fascinating breakdown of the Burning Man Festival.

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Port-au-Prince, Haiti — Skybox Imagery

This spring, rumors spread that Google was interested in buying Skybox, and on June 9th it was announced that they had in fact bought the satellite imaging company for $500 million. Techcrunch’s coverage of the deal stated:

They (Skybox) will continue launching satellites and work closely with the Google’s Geo team to improve imagery in Google’s products.

If this holds true, and Skybox’s satellite imagery is made free within Google Earth, Google has the potential to profoundly change surfing. Below I speculate on the impacts that Skybox’s Imaging within Google Earth could have on the surf community.

Wave Discovery

Recently, Skybox stated:

We plan to have our full constellation of 24 satellites in orbit within the next five years, at which point we will be able to revisit any point on Earth up to five to seven times per day.

If we unwrap this statement, we get a glimpse into how incredible Skybox’s products are. First, Skybox says their satellites will view every spot on earth, not just areas with high population densities. If we assume that their satellites will be capturing continuously, and the images taken will be made public, surfers will get visual access to absolutely any place they wish to look for waves. Additionally, Skybox claims that it will capture 5 to 7 images per day of every spot on earth. Even with images taken during the night or with cloudy conditions, this capturing frequency will quickly create a database of all possible swell, wind, and tide condition for every wave on earth. It isn’t crazy to think that Skybox’s will close in on capturing every wave on our planet in 3–5 years.

The new scale of images creates an entirely new problems. For example, if Skybox is taking 5–7 images of every place on earth per day, there will be between 1825 to 2555 images per spot/per year. So if you’re scanning a coastline trying to discover a new wave, it would require sifting through a massive amount of images to find the right wave conditions. Luckily, Skybox has developed analytics tools and an API with 3rd party integration to help search their massive database. Imagine, for example, using Skybox’s Algorithm Api and searching every place on earth that has similar wave profile as pipeline.

Additionally, Skybox’s API could become the backbone of new wave and conditions reports. Theoretically, one could build a service that take an image of your home break on a great day, and then set up a iOS notification for every time the spot looks similar.

The end?

If Skybox’s wave-discovery tools become available to the general surf public through Google Earth, there’s also likely to be an massive unveiling of secret spots.

Most local communities have waves that only a select few individuals know about. These spots may only come alive during uncommon conditions, or there may be access issues that limit their use. As a surfer myself, I hold a couple spots very close to my heart and share them with only my close friends. If Google does release Skybox’s imaging capabilities to the masses, there is a chance that the places that I cherish so much, may become overrun with new surfers.

And, while the possibility of finding a new Pipeline make me giddy, it also forces surfers to answer the question: do we really want discovery to become so easy, so effortless? Will the magic of finding new waves be lost when “the search” is completed by algorithms while you sit in boxers eating cereal in your living room?

While thinking through potential changes to surfing, I also found myself thinking through the implications on privacy with a system such as Skybox. The features I described above amount to a extremely powerful surveillance tools. If I am able to freely track and monitor waves, the implications of human surveillance for nefarious reasons is a very real possibility.

I have some further thoughts about Skybox’s capabilities and how they could affect surf forecasting. I plan on publishing these later.

Please excuse any spelling or grammatical errors. I’m terrible at proofreading. Let me know if you spot any errors.

Thanks so much for reading!

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