What Was the Largest Wave Ever Recorded?

Huge wave cresting with tons of blue and white water
This massive wave in Nazaré, Portugal, dwarfs the surfer in the bottom left of the image, and yet it's still not the biggest wave on record. artur carvalho / Getty Images

Scientists have long been fascinated by the ocean's dynamic nature, where the force of the water collides with atmospheric phenomena to create waves of monumental size.

The largest wave ever recorded was documented by researchers who analyze and predict marine and weather patterns. These measurements help not only in understanding the ocean's capabilities but also in preparing for natural disasters.

So, what is the tallest wave ever recorded? Let's find out!

The Lituya Bay Tsunami and the Biggest Wave Ever Recorded

In the serene landscape of Lituya Bay, Alaska, the evening of July 9, 1958, marked a monumental event. Seismic activity along the Fairweather Fault, which runs west of Juneau along the Alaska Panhandle, triggered a massive earthquake and dislodged an enormous amount of earth.

This landslide, involving approximately 90 million tons of rock, plunged into the narrow Gilbert Inlet at tremendous speed. The displacement caused by the glacier that dropped into the inlet was so immense that it created a tsunami unlike any recorded before or since.

As this wave hit the opposite shoreline, it generated a staggering force, causing the wave crest to break with such power that it scoured trees and soil from slopes, reshaping the terrain.

The entire length of the inlet felt the impact as the wave crest broke, reaching a height of 1,720 feet (524 meters) above sea level. To put this in perspective, the Empire State Building is 1,250 feet (380 meters) tall, making the wave 470 feet (143 meters) taller than the skyscraper.

A fishing boat anchored at the mouth of the bay witnessed the massive tsunami's might as it reshaped Lituya Bay in mere moments. The boat managed to ride the wave, a testament to both the mariners' luck and the unique conditions of the bay.

The Lituya Bay tsunami not only became a crucial study point for research but also solidified its status as the largest recorded wave.

What Are Rogue Waves?

A rogue wave is an unusually large and unexpected wave that can appear suddenly in the open ocean, posing significant dangers to ships. Also referred to as walls of water, they're disproportionately tall and steep, compared to the surrounding sea conditions.

Historically, rogue waves were considered mythical by sailors and largely unrecognized by scientists until they were conclusively detected by modern instruments. They're are often characterized as being more than twice the height of surrounding waves, making them some of the tallest waves observed at sea.

Unlike tsunamis, which are generated by underwater disturbances like earthquakes, rogue waves seem to arise due to the merging of several smaller waves, which, due to various oceanic conditions, combine their energies into a single, exceptionally powerful wave.

This process results in towering walls of water that rise abruptly and without warning, capable of causing catastrophic damage and even capsizing vessels.

The study of rogue waves has been pivotal in understanding the dynamics of the open ocean, as these outliers challenge traditional wave models that once predicted their near impossibility. Modern marine research continues to explore how wind conditions, ocean currents and other factors contribute to the formation of these ocean phenomena.

What Is the Highest Rogue Wave Ever Recorded?

The highest rogue wave ever recorded measured 84 feet (25.6 meters) in height and was detected by a Norwegian oil platform in the North Sea in 1995, making it the most extreme rogue wave observed in modern maritime history.

Researchers studying this wave noted that it occurred in a relatively harsh sea state, characterized by strong winds and significant wave heights, which likely contributed to its extreme formation.

10 Other Places With Record-breaking Waves

As the quest for bigger and more thrilling waves continues, certain destinations around the world have become known for record-breaking swells. Each location has its unique geological and oceanographic conditions that produce some of the most extreme waves known to humankind.

From the legendary barrels of Tahiti to the ominous swells of Ireland's West Coast, these destinations challenge the limits of big wave surfing. Here are some of the most renowned spots where the giants of the ocean come to life.

1. Nazaré, Portugal

Nazaré, Portugal, is renowned for its monstrous waves, attracting big wave surfers from around the globe. The underwater Nazaré Canyon funnels swell energy directly to Praia do Norte, producing some of the most extreme waves ever surfed.

2. Pe'ahi /Jaws, Maui

Jaws, also known as Pe'ahi, is a mecca off the shores of Maui for surfers seeking the challenge of mammoth waves. Known for its powerful winter swells, Jaws generates towering walls of water that offer a thrilling ride for those skilled enough to navigate its massive breaks.

This destination is a cornerstone in the history of big wave surfing, regularly drawing a crowd to witness its spectacular swells.

3. Cortes Bank, California

Located off the coast of Southern California, Cortes Bank is an underwater seamount that produces some of the biggest waves on the planet.

This spot is unique due to its remote location and the fact that its waves break miles from shore over a submerged island, making it a dangerous yet irresistible challenge for surfers.

4. Mavericks, California

Mavericks in Northern California is infamous for its cold, shark-infested waters and massive waves that crash onto a shallow reef. This spot has become a storied venue in big wave surfing lore, hosting prestigious competitions that test the limits of even the most seasoned surfers.

5. Puerto Escondido, Mexico

Known as the "Mexican Pipeline," Puerto Escondido offers some of the most powerful and dangerous waves in the world. The beach break here is famed for its consistency and ferocity, attracting surfers eager to tackle its fast-moving tubes and thick, heavy barrels.

6. Waimea, Hawaii

Waimea Bay on Hawaii's North Shore is a historic site in the world of big wave surfing. It was one of the first spots where surfers began to challenge the big waves, and it continues to be a proving ground for those looking to make their mark in the sport. The iconic waves draw spectators and surfers alike each winter.

7. Teahupo'o, Tahiti

Teahupo'o in Tahiti is perhaps best known for its visually stunning yet dangerously shallow reef break. The waves here break so close to the surface that they form a thick, hollow tube, providing one of the most challenging rides available to big wave surfers — a true test of skill and nerve.

8. Cloudbreak, Fiji

Cloudbreak off the coast of Fiji is a world-class surf spot famous for its long, winding waves and pristine beauty. This reef break can hold swells that produce significant wave heights, offering a paradise for those looking to experience big wave surfing amidst the isolated splendor of the South Pacific.

9. Mullaghmore Head, Ireland

Mullaghmore Head along Ireland's West Coast is renowned for its monstrous winter swells that attract surfers from across the globe. The cold Atlantic waters here give rise to some of the most intimidating waves in Europe, driven by deep ocean swells that crash into its rugged coastline.

10. Belharra, France

Belharra, off the coast of France, is another European hotspot for giant waves. This deep water reef comes alive during the winter when conditions align to produce massive swells that can be seen and heard from miles away.

It’s a favorite challenge for big wave surfers in the region, adding to the allure of Europe's unlikely big wave surfing scene.

The Biggest Wave Ever Surfed

In the realm of big wave surfing, one question often echoes through the community: "Has anyone surfed a 100-foot wave?" While that exact milestone remains officially unconfirmed, a record was broken in the legendary swells at Nazaré, Portugal.

In 2020, German surfer Sebastian Steudtner rode a 86 foot wave at Nazaré. Although precise measurements can vary, this ride entered the record books and captured the world's attention, symbolizing the pinnacle of what is humanly possible in big wave surfing.

We created this article in conjunction with AI technology, then made sure it was fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.

Original article: What Was the Largest Wave Ever Recorded?

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