A Surfing Scientist Tests the Waves

| by Ocean Wise

When Cliff Kapono arrives at a popular surf break in England, Morocco or California, he hands out swab kits to the surfers he meets. So far he’s collected 500 samples, all part of a quest to answer a greater question: do the oceans change humans on a microbial level?

Our bodies are alive with tiny organisms that create a microbiome unique to every person. This invisible world of parasites, bacteria, fungi and viruses is what Kapono studies as a biochemistry doctoral student at the University of California San Diego. Under the microscope, salmonella looks like shaggy pills and strep throat like a string of pearls.

If the ocean makes us sick, surfers would be the canaries in the coalmines.
Photo: djnekokittie / flickr

Microbes are mostly helpful or harmless, but sometimes they cause disease. When we wash our hands or wear flip-flops in a public shower, we’re guarding against malignant ones like the flu or athlete’s foot. But something far more menacing is afoot in this microscopic world.

Scientists warn of a looming antibiotic crisis caused by a new breed of superbugs, AKA antibiotic-resistant bacteria (ARBs). They’ve evolved and outwitted modern drugs like penicillin, and every year they infect at least 2 million Americans and 23,000 die from them.

Hospitals are a well-known spot for picking up a superbug, but what part does the natural environment play? Cliff Kapono wondered. Some suspect that superbugs transmit more readily through polluted water than air. A study in the UK estimated that ocean-bathers could be vulnerable to antibiotic-resistant strains of E.coli on more than six million occasions in one year.

If the ocean does pass along superbugs, surfers would be the canaries in the coalmine — and Kapono has deep roots in this world. As a native Hawaiian, he grew up cresting Pacific waves. Surfers spend long hours immersed in the ocean, sodden wet suits stuck to their skin, gulping down approximately 170 millilitres of seawater per surf session.

test tubes
Surfers’ microbial swabs could reveal key clues to the looming antibiotic crisis.
Photo: Håkan Dahlström / flickr

Armed with an $80,000 grant, Kapono set out to collect microbial samples from around the world. No more than two hours after hitting the waves, surfers swab their navels, mouths, heads and boards with the kits he distributes. Then, they ship the samples to UC San Diego where they are loaded into the American Gut Project — a mass sequencing of biomes and one of the largest citizen-science projects in the US. So far, Kapono hasn’t discovered that surfers pick up superbugs and the jury is still out on whether infection from ocean pollution is even possible.

Cliff Kapono is the new face of surfers giving back to the environment.
Photo: Joel Schumacher

But he has noticed how some of his microbial metabolites came to resemble surfers in each region. Maybe the ocean does change us after all? With people like Cliff Kapono around and surfers swabbing their belly buttons for science, we can finally lay to rest the deadhead surf-bum image. These days, they’re part of the solution for cleaner, healthier oceans.