- WSL / Ryan Craig

This story was originally published by SURFER.

My fascination with slabs has existed far longer than I've been taking photos of them. One of my earliest memories of seeing mutant slabs were in bodyboarding videos coming out of Australia, mainly in a few scenes from "The Underground Tapes - Warped" that I played on continual repeat. These waves were absolutely terrifying and very different to the beachbreaks and wedges I was more accustomed to in Santa Cruz, California. During these years (the late '90s), slab surfing was a lot more underground than it is today. It was a specialized group of fearless adrenaline junkies who tackled these wild and erratic mini-mountains of water. The most notable slab in my mind was Shark Island, the infamous reef located in Cronulla, NSW, Australia. Swell coming from deep water would jack-up and throw out onto the reef with such power that I often wondered how people were surviving such violent wipeouts.

Even today, my heart races when I watch people surfing shallow and shifty reefs - and even more so when I'm swimming out with my camera to photograph them. The intense drop that is required to make a near-vertical transition down the wave face and into the tube, without pearling, is one of the most intense moments in surfing. The bottom beneath these waves come in a variety of forms: from jagged and inconsistent rock/reef to a smooth (but hard) shelf that will likely make the wave taper a touch more predictably. Some slabs are glorified seamounts that are seemingly breaking in the middle of nowhere, while others are tucked into coves and visible from the comforts of your car. With growing notoriety over the last decade, the world's best slabs - like The Right and Shipstern Bluff - now attract more brave surfers than ever before.

To date, I've barely checked off a fraction of the slabs on my bucket list that I'd like to shoot, but below are a few of my favorite moments during my recent wave-chasing travels. As you'll see below, slabs come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and are located in almost every corner of the world. Many of the best slab waves need very specific tides to function at their best. Some smaller slab setups can only handle a few feet of swell while others need to be 10 feet-plus before they even start to resemble a rideable wave. Aside from their variances, there are hundreds if not thousands of slabs on this planet, many of which are still waiting to be discovered when all of the right elements come together.

NSW, Australia (from SURFER) NSW. - Ryan Craig

NSW, Australia

Australia is pretty much ground zero for slab-hunting. Some of the most famous slabs along the Australian coastline (Ours on the east coast, The Box on the west coast, and The Right to the south, just to name a few) and the reef setups throughout the country cater heavily to these types of waves. I stayed with filmer Andrew Kaineder in New South Wales for a few weeks in 2017 and had the opportunity to shoot with Russell Bierke at one of his favorite waves, a deep-water slab that breaks a decent distance offshore. This photo was shot at sunrise with the jetskis giving a good reference to the size of the waves.

Ireland (from SURFER) Ireland. - Ryan Craig

Ireland

Many local surfers in Ireland will trade in their surfboards for bodyboarders as the tide drops at this slab so that they can maximize their barrel time as much as possible on any given day. This image was shot as the tide was getting too low for surfing or bodyboarding and everyone was already out of the water. As perfect as this wave looks (for those of us who love slabs, that is) it was completely dry on the inside - like reef-above-the-water dry, just out of frame to the left.

Costa Rica (from SURFER) Costa Rica. - Ryan Craig

Costa Rica

Costa Rican Alberto "Beto" Muñoz didn't have much experience at this slab but set the tone for the morning by catching this wave moments after hopping off the boat. As he dropped in the wave grew down the line and left him no choice but to pull into the heaving section. He didn't make the wave but he also didn't hit the bottom or break his board so we were all stoked.

Brazil (from SURFER) Brazil. - Ryan Craig

Brazil

The world had just been exposed to this wave when I was down in Brazil in 2012. I happened to be staying in Rio de Janeiro for a week when I met pro surfer Marcelo Trekinho, who introduced me to this wave. Without question, I've never been more confused by a wave set-up and how it breaks. Swell would wrap around the island, hit a swallow patch of reef and double (or triple) up before going back into really deep water. Without a description of the wave beforehand, I was only told that I would likely be fine shooting fisheye at the predicted size so that was the only lens I brought for my water housing. I jumped off the jet-ski and almost immediately got caught inside. The current was outrageous. This wave was scary, with a completely irregular bottom creating all these boils and multiple steps in the wave face. I never thought I was going to see a wave like this when I went down to Brazil, but they have numerous crazy waves similar to this.

Greenbush (from SURFER) Greenbush. - Ryan Craig

Greenbush

Greenbush is moodier and often times less ruler-edged than the other nearby breaks. The end section is dry at low tide, which definitely makes it an intimating wave. I've only watched it in person once but I hope to find myself back there again sometime in the future on a larger swell.

Costa Rica (from SURFER) Costa Rica. - Ryan Craig

Costa Rica

The Caribbean side of Costa Rica has some crazy waves and likely a lot more slabs left to be discovered. In typical open-ocean-slab style, this wave was super shifty and looked different set to set. There were a few moments that produced exceptional waves and I could definitely see the potential.

Massive Nias (from SURFER Nias. - Ryan Craig

Nias

Lagundri Bay in Nias is by most accounts a point break, but morphs into a slab-like wave when the swell grows in size. This swell, back in the summer of 2018, marked my first visit to Nias. I had seen numerous photos of other large swells but it wasn't until I was swimming out there that I came to understand how much it mimicked the characteristics of other slabs. The water sucking off the reef physically pulls you further out to sea, and as the wave throws over, a quarter of it becomes a thick lip. Common characteristics of slab waves are that the waves often grow in lip thickness and not so much in height. This was very evident on the biggest day of the swell. The wave heights weren't significantly taller than the first few days but the swell energy focused so heavily on the outside bowl that many waves were simply un-rideable - they were too doubled up and too fast to catch on many of the sets.

NSW, Australia (from SURFER) NSW. - Ryan Craig

NSW, Australia

While in Sydney, I stopped by Ours to check out a potential swell that ended up being too small. Along the way, however, I stumbled upon this little fun suck-up slab. I still have no idea if this is a wave people ride or if it was just a mirage, but in typical Australian fashion, it seemed better and certainly heavier then 99 percent of the waves in California -- and it was doing its thing without a soul around.

Mentawais (from SURFER) Mentawais. - Ryan Craig

Mentawai Islands

This mysto slab in the Mentawais was probably the shortest of all the waves we explored in the island chain and definitely one of the most fun to shoot. The wave is really hollow but oddly playful at the same time. The type of wave you dream about finding and scoring when you're considering a surf trip like this.

Canary Islands (from SURFER) Canary Islands. - Ryan Craig

Canary Islands

One of my first international trips was to the Canary Islands and much of what I had heard before I traveled there was that it was like the "Hawaii of Europe". Based on the variety of set-ups I saw on my visit, I do believe The Canary Islands deserve that description. My best friend and bodyboarder (Sundaran - pictured) knew where our best chances of finding waves were and we set off to explore. A large swell coincided with our trip and smashed the island for a few days, showing us glimpses of its crazy slabs. This wave was essentially a closeout at this size but had a barrel that rivaled Pipeline this afternoon. But without a channel or knowing exactly what the bottom looked like, we passed and kept looking elsewhere.

Southeast Asia (from SURFER) Southeast Asia. - Ryan Craig

Southeast Asia

I found myself in Asia on a solo trip a while back, in search of some more remote reef setups. I received a tip about this wave but couldn't connect with any surfers in time to organize a group, so I decided to go alone. On this particular swell, the wave was a lot shorter and thicker than it normally is and it was definitely square. The reef is exceptionally sharp, which I quickly found out after getting caught inside and bouncing off the bottom.

Ireland (from SURFER) Ireland. - Ryan Craig

Alex Gray, Ireland

I've been to Ireland a few times and it's one of my favorite countries on earth for a number of reasons, one of them being its abundance of crazy waves like this. Before this image of Alex Gray was snapped, I was out there bodyboarding and then followed that up by shooting images in the water. I'm pretty sure I was freezing at that point and unable to grip my camera any longer, so I went in and snapped a few more images from shore. Alex got whipped (jet ski assist) into this wave and was doing great until the end section went dry and he cartwheeled over his outside rail. He bounced off the bottom, snapped his board but was (somehow) all smiles after.

Hawaii (from SURFER) Hawaii. - Ryan Craig

Hawaii

Hawaii is home to so many waves it's hard to keep track of them all, and just like in many parts of the world, the islands house novelty waves that spring up with the right conditions. I would imagine that this shallow right-hander can't handle much more swell than what is pictured here but it is quite the mechanical set-up at this size.

Pacific Northwest (from SURFER) Pacific Northwest. - Ryan Craig

Pacific Northwest

To be honest, this is the scariest slab I've ever ridden and this photo is only about half as big as the wave can handle. With no boat or jet ski assist, it takes anywhere from 15-to-30 minutes to paddle out over deep, dark-green water with the constant thought of huge fish lurking below. The right is almost dry reef regardless of tide and the left is a huge but short tube on the right swell angle. I think it's roughly 100 feet deep just off the shelf - waves seemingly pop up out of nowhere so you're always scanning the horizon to avoid getting caught inside.

Nicaragua (from SURFER) Nicaragua. - Ryan Craig

Nicaragua

Nicaragua has a variety of surf breaks and when the swell is large enough, a reef slab at Popoyo comes to life. It's definitely a unique spot that can handle and produce great waves, from 10-foot faces all the way up to 30-foot faces. The wave breaks quite a bit offshore and it takes a while to swim out. The reef is super sharp with particularly shallow middle and end sections, which is evident in the boils you see in the photo.

Matt Bromley, NSW (from SURFER) NSW. - WSL / Ryan Craig

Matt Bromley, NSW

This was the second consecutive day that South African charger Matt Bromley had surfed this wave in NSW and he learned a lot from his maiden session. His drop was beautiful as he then set up his bottom turn for a massive cavern.

Mavericks (from SURFER) Mavericks. - WSL / Ryan Craig

Mavericks

I consider Mavericks to be a big-wave slab and one of the craziest in the world on the right size and swell angle. This frame was taken during a swell that produced truly terrifying waves. It was virtually impossible that day to catch waves in the bowl. The left is significantly shorter and often times more hollow than the right, but both directions are capable of producing jaw-dropping moments. The potential for a 20-foot tube seems like it'd be much greater if surfers were towing into waves like this, but that era has all but evaporated in this part of the world. That being said, as these big-wave talents gain more and more experience paddling into massive waves, it'll only be a matter of time before someone gets shacked by a giant this square.

Northern California (from SURFER) Northern California. - Ryan Craig

Northern California

California isn't known for having world-class slabs but some waves, on some sets and on certain sections, look as good as anywhere else in the world. It takes a lot for me to want to swim out to this wave as it is notoriously sharky. This is probably the best wave I've ever seen ridden out there. By the time I had my camera set up and was at the edge of the reef this specific morning, all but one surfer had gone in. I saw local charger Wilem Banks (pictured) riding a wave in and met him at the shoreline. I told him he had to go back out - it was still early in the morning with good waves and I was too nervous to swim out there with only one other guy left in the lineup. Wilem happily obliged and 45 minutes later this shot was created.

Shipsterns Bluff (from SURFER) Shipsterns Bluff - Ryan Craig

Shipsterns Bluff

During the early exploratory days of surfing Shipsterns Bluff, I couldn't believe some of the footage I would see. It just looked like a liquid mutant from another planet! While I was in Sydney during one trip, I saw a swell pop up and I decided to go on a solo mission down to Tasmania to check it out. Over the course of the day, from sunrise to sunset, there were only 6 surfers in the water, with most of the sets being unrideable. I was in awe of how much energy the wave had right in front of these huge rocks. There can be consequences if you have a bad wipeout there, as medical help is very far away. This definitely makes Shipsterns Bluff one of the most intimidating waves on earth.

This story was originally published by SURFER.

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