For mountaineers, there are the 8,000-metre peaks: K2, Kilimanjaro, and Everest. For surfers, there are Teahupoo, Praia de Norte, and Jaws. These waves are the pinnacle of the surfing community. The top accolades. The most powerful, most dangerous, and biggest waves in the world.
Big wave surfing is a completely different beast from your average beach break. As waves increase in height, they gain more power, carry a greater volume of water, and hit the coast harder. They can be unpredictable, temperamental, and downright difficult to ride safely. Big waves have taken the lives of many surfers over the years and riding these watery peaks is no game.
To surf the biggest waves in the world, you need years of training and knowledge. You must handle yourself in high-risk situations, adjusting your line or reacting to surprises with a level of confidence that only comes from hard-earned experience.
With Guinness World Records, XXL Surf Awards, fame, and prize money on the line, big wave surfing is alluring to many fearless athletes. The World Surf League has even introduced a framework for measuring big wave height so there can now be a standard practice applied to official rankings. If you want to know where the swell hits hardest, here are the eight biggest waves in the world.
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How do big waves form?
If you know how and why a wave forms, you have a better chance of predicting where it will strike and when. Most big swells form far out to sea, often during winter storms. After a swell begins moving to shore, oceanography, seafloor topography (also known as bathymetry), wave period and high winds all come into play.
For example, waves that hit the coast off Nazaré are usually formed by a mid-Atlantic storm that has whipped up the ocean between Newfoundland and Greenland. These waves begin messily but soon align as they travel towards land.
As the water shallows (a rapid decrease in water depth creates bigger waves), the seafloor drags the seawater downwards, slowing the water speed and building wave power. Right before reaching shore, the wave crumbles under its own weight as it starts to crest and break.
Some of the biggest waves in the world are formed by tsunamis. These mega waves are produced by earthquakes, volcanoes, and rockslides. For example, in 1958, a 1,720 foot wave erupted in Lituya Bay, Alaska due to an earthquake which triggered a massive rockslide.
However, these freak events are impossible to predict and certainly not surfable. For surfable waves that are produced with more consistency, keep an eye out for winter storms. There are only a few places in the world where the biggest waves form, and it is usually coastal bathymetry that boosts a big wave to a gargantuan one.
8 biggest and most famous waves in the world
Teahupoo in Tahiti, French Polynesia
The heaviest wave in the world requires little introduction. What makes Teahupoo so epic isn’t necessarily its height, it’s the enormous body of water that tows behind the lip like a sea monster rising from the depths of the ocean.
In Polynesia, the name of this wave loosely translates to “pile of heads” or “severed heads”. An apt title given its nature. This thick barrelling wave creates a hefty wall of water that rushes perilously over a sharp and stony reef. Sadly, it has been fatal for multiple surfers with 5 killed and many more resuscitated or badly injured over the years.
However, this wave is a beauty, no one denies that. An azure arc curling out of a vast plane of sparkling water. This wave is surprisingly consistent, surging from the Pacific Ocean before hooking left over a 4-foot deep reef – not a place for mistakes!
How does it form?
As with many of the biggest waves in the world, the submarine bathymetry causes the waves to barrel but it’s the large swell that helps to produce these monsters. French Polynesia is positioned in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, which means it can receive swells from pretty much any SW to SE direction.
The depth quickly drops from shallow to +1,000 metres deep a half-mile offshore. This allows the full power of the ocean to build, uninterrupted, before suddenly colliding with the sea floor causing the wave energy to be heaved over the shallow reef.
Cortes Bank in San Diego, California
This rare wave only hits a couple of times a year. It is a phantom swell that brews almost 110 miles off the coast of California, which makes it dangerous and extremely inaccessible. Cortes Bank makes it into the history books as one of the biggest waves ever surfed. In 2008, Mike Parsons caught a 77-foot behemoth and claimed the accolade of the highest wave ever surfed in the Pacific Ocean.
How does it form?
Cortes Bank forms due to a submerged island that just touches the water’s surface at low tide. Being so far out to sea, this break is at the mercy of the wind which can send waves in all directions. That means the conditions must be perfect to get the biggest rideable waves.
Praia do Norte in Nazaré, Portugal
By all definitions, this is currently the top spot for producing the biggest waves in the world. The extraordinary liquid mountains of Praia do Norte in Nazaré can produce waves 50-100 feet high. If surfed successfully, the rider can travel up to speeds of 50 mph.
Nazaré is currently the location for the largest wave ever ridden by Sebastian Steudtner in 2020 – an 86-foot monstrosity. However, these waves are understandably perilous, and the surfing community was shocked by the recent death of Brazilian big wave surfer Márcio Freire in January 2023.
Each winter, the swell attracts big wave surfers from across the globe. This beach break is best fuelled by a W/NW swell which often appears to have been sent straight from Neptune himself.
How does it form?
The Nazaré North Canyon, the largest in Europe, acts as a funnel increasing the wave size as it approaches the shore. This submarine valley stretches back to the Iberian Abyssal Plain where the water depth is 5,000 metres deep. From here the depth gradually decreases right up to the sea shore where the waters are no more than 20 metres deep.
A complex interaction of swell refraction and this rapid depth reduction causes a shoaling effect (shorter wave lengths but increased wave height). These converging waves intersect to form a mega wave.
Littoral drift is the cherry on the cake. Current flows along the beach causing water build-up in the bay. This current then flows back against the wave increasing the shoaling effect even further. Thus, the Praia do Norte beasts are formed!
Jaws or “Pe’ahi” in Maui, Hawaii
Many surfers say Jaws consistently produces the biggest waves in the world, or at least in the Pacific Ocean. This submerged beach break has had multiple Wave of the Winter winners. Most notably, in 2016, Yuri Soledad from Brazil surfed an enormous 71-foot barrel wave!
For about 15 days of the year, the biggest swells hit. The waves range between 30 to 60 feet, sometimes higher. Although smaller than the waves at Nazaré, these saltwater demons are said to hit harder and run faster. Spectators gather in boats to admire these gorgeous open-faced waves.
How does it form?
The wave is formed by a 30-foot cone-shaped ridge on the seafloor. Angled northwest and out to sea, this ridge causes gigantic high-wave refraction to occur due to the drastic depth change.
Shipstern Bluff in Tasmania, Australia
Double-up lips, mid-wave bubbles, big drops, and wobbling slabs are just some of the things you can expect when riding one of the biggest waves in the world. Few surfers attempt Shipstern Bluff because it’s downright, well, difficult. The likelihood of you falling is extremely high given the wave’s mutating shapes.
The waves are known for being unpredictable and maddening. Mostly, this is due to the unusually shaped sea floor which creates waveception – a wave within a wave. This “step” forces surfers to jump and readjust their line in the most intense conditions.
Shipstern Bluff is also known for its inaccessibility. Surfers must ride 30 km out to sea or trek through the Tasman National Park to reach these gnarly peaks. But don’t be fooled by the scenery; this is one mean wave, and it’s going to make you pay if you fail to ride it well.
How does it form?
Ground swells from the deep Atlantic hurtle into shore. The swell then reaches the awkward step-shaped slab which accelerates the water’s energy. This causes the waves to pull right and form into a wobbling barrel before crashing over the shallow reef beneath the dramatic Shipstern cliffs.
Mavericks in Half Moon Bay, California
Mavericks was one of the early big wave surf spots dating back to the 1990s. Many famous names have tackled this break including Carlos Burle and Mike Parsons (both hold big wave records at this spot). It is a cold, dark wave that has claimed the lives of a few surfers, and almost grasped many more. Mostly due to the “two-wave hold downs” that haunt surfer’s dreams.
These waves have been building for 5 days. They travel a long way before crashing into the Californian coast with thunderous effect. This produces a chunky A-frame wave that roars into shore with a power that is both enticing and frightening.
Unusually for the biggest waves in the world, it’s a paddle-in wave, and one of the largest. This only adds to the danger as it makes it very difficult to get into the right position without getting pummelled.
How does it form?
Mavericks has a particularly large fetch, which is the stretch of open water that the wind blows over. This allows Pacific storms to gather some serious power before reaching the western seaboard. The bathymetry around Pillar Point is also lined with swirls and whorls which magnifies around a shallow reef causing Mavericks to rear its beastly head.
Dungeons in Cape Town, South Africa
Dungeons has a frightening name, but it comes with plenty of good features. It doesn’t break over a shallow reef, and it doesn’t hurtle its riders into any razor-sharp rocks. Now for the bad part. It is located off the coast of South Africa, one of the coldest and windiest coastal areas on earth.
The near sub-zero waves of the Southern Ocean are hypothermic, and the water is swarming with great white sharks. Not to mention that the biggest waves are only accessible by boat or jet ski. However, it is one of the biggest waves in Africa and that’s a great accolade to master!
How does it form?
Dungeons is another reef break fed by polar cold fronts from the Antarctic. Like many of the biggest waves in the world, it fires hardest during the winter (April-September). After brewing in a polar vortex, these titanic swells surge towards the nearest land mass before breaking over a shallow reef on the edge of the coast.
Mullaghmore Head in Donegal Bay, Ireland
Turbulent water and rushing waves create quite the setting in County Sligo. Mullaghmore Head might just be the biggest wave in the British Isles, it’s certainly one of the biggest waves in Europe! Often whipped up by high winds and bracing rain, this left-hand beach break only forms at high tide.
This is a rare wave, but when it strikes there are some epic slabs and truly wild drops. The wind often meddles with the waves here so picking the right day for wind and wave direction to coincide is something of an art. However, if you manage to hit the bullseye, you’ll find yourself riding one of the biggest waves in the world.
How does it form?
This wave is thick, cold, and fast. Look for winter storm swells for the best barrels as this stretch of coast is highly exposed from October to March. It produces a hollow green beast that is filled with dodgy steps which surfers must tactfully manoeuvre. The waves at Mullaghmore Head form due to a shallow reef that drops onto a hefty rock shelf submerged off the Irish coast.
About the author
Watersports Pro is managed by Ollie, who has been in the industry since 2007. A paddleboard and advanced windsurfing instructor, Ollie has travelled the world teaching these sports.
Now based on the South Coast of England, he shares his experience and knowledge on watersportspro.co.uk.