Another Face in the Race: Meet Cliff Kapono

By Ben Meissner

The human world and the natural world are not separate, but interconnected and interdependent. Demonstrating that truth takes guts — or a closer look at those comprising the microbiome of the surf community. 


In 2017 the face of our environmental movement is as dynamic and fluid as the ocean itself, and for good reason. Forging a sustainable coexistence on this planet is a multisided die; it demands alterations to every facet of our routine, from the food we eat, to the engines we fuel, to the telephones we’re always tapping without a second thought. The future will depend on solutions of all sizes, from no-brainers like paperless receipts, to loftier paradigm shifts turning ocean debris into production inputs. Regardless of the scale, this movement will always thrive on a diversity of thought — the ideas of engineers, scientists, artists, and economists all thread a web of support for change, which we never come by easily. As long as we sustain this spirit of ingenuity and collaboration, we can invent a model of environmental stewardship that is compatible with our economy.

Daunting, I know, wrangling a world of differing views to share clarity in the same vision, but our saving grace is that we anchor these intentions around a strong and simple realization: We are nature. Ecologically responsible practices are not pursued for the purpose of alleviating guilt, or repentance for deep footprints that have already been laid in our natural environments; it is born from the realization that we exist because of a living, breathing planet, to which we owe respect for the sake of our own persistence. Whether you appreciate nature from the shoes of an enthusiastic nature-lover or view fish as nothing but a food source, environmentalism can be fundamentally pragmatic. Allowing the notion of mutual dependence to permeate our approaches to economics, industry, and development can and should create simultaneous gain for humans and the environment. It all begins by placing ourselves within nature as opposed to without it.

What better basin of immersion to refresh perspectives than the oceans?



Cliff Kapono has learned at the water’s edge his entire life. Born and raised on the eastern shores of Hawai’i, his resolve is clear and his intentions are many. Cliff wears as many hats as needed in pursuit of environmental stewardship and justice. Currently he combines talents as a surfer, scientist, filmmaker, and activist to support innovative solutions and encourage more companies, consumers, and communities to play an active role. While you could marvel at Cliff’s Hawaiian-bred, effortless style of surfing alone, it is his recognition of the serious responsibility bound to his passion for waves that defines him as an ocean ambassador.

The number of people with the ability to casually identify behavior-based molecules and the chemical composition of microbes from a swab of your mouth is undoubtedly few. Combine that mind with someone featured in countless local and international surf periodicals, and you’ve happened upon a rare kind. Carving a unique identity as a surfer-scientist, Cliff demonstrates a passion for the oceans in an entirely new context. Through his studies, he’s developed an acute awareness for all the unseen consequences humans have on the environment.

The ocean drinks everything — microplastics from cosmetics and pulverized products, long-lived compounds found in sunscreen like octocrylene and avobenzone, and of course CO2 emissions tied to so much of our manufacturing processes. The more Cliff learned about the accumulation of pollutants in our oceans (and consequently ourselves), the less sufficed to think that we have achieved "sustainable" lives simply by biking to work or recycling a bottle after lunch. Modern science has spotlighted the severity of our purchase and consumption patterns, and with that we inherit a responsibility to demand change throughout the supply chain. Cliff voices this often and openly. His latest film, Surf Wasted sheds light on the largely misunderstood availability for alternative materials when creating “low-waste” surfboards. Watch it here: 


Everyone has high hopes in a new year, and Cliff is no different. Besides touring Surf Wasted to film festivals from Hawai’i to Colorado, this summer he aims to complete his PhD with the conclusion of the Surfer Biome Project. Traveling the world’s waves taking samples of surfers, their boards, and their guts, he is examining the molecular structure and bacterial makeup of dedicated ocean-goers to see how we literally come to be products of our own environment.

While this study was initially funded upon inquiries of how oceans affect our microbial makeup, Cliff’s results have already sprouted new questions about how we affect the ocean, as we become chemical reservoirs through our own habits of consumption, bringing concentrations of foreign molecules into the environment. These questions lie at the cutting edge of molecular research, where no one has yet determined how and to what degree humans serve as carriers for the molecular world. Cliff’s journey also provides insight through anecdote as we explore the intersection of science and the public. Drifting through various corners of the world, his ability to captivate with a surfboard and earn respect as a newcomer serves to break the ice, or in some cases deliver it — even if the only way to get dry ice to the coast of Morocco is by camel courier. Convincing the gruff big-wave adrenaline junkies off the coast of Ireland to stick cotton swabs in undesirable places is no small feat either. But I digress.   



Zooming out from the microscope, 2017 dawns on what will surely be more productive conversations about eco innovation in design and manufacturing. What do we truly want out of the goods we produce? A short lifespan that allows items to quickly be recycled into new products? Or renewably sourced items that our built to last, and defy the single-use model? This idea of finding the sweet spot between degradability, renewability, and recyclability is the core concept behind Cliff’s Hydration Reincarnation campaign, in which he hopes to make a line of boardshorts entirely from ocean waste.

Cliff currently works with a number of brands to spark innovative environmental initiatives. He continually pushes the surf community and industry to pay dues for the waves they are privileged to ride. Working with big name adventure brands, his goal is to harness the energy and interest of those who “consume” the outdoors to encourage companies to reflect that appreciation in their production processes.

Regardless of the challenges we must address for the oceans this year, the mottled face of resistance has never looked so good. If you are confused as to where you fit in the ever-changing, ever-growing identity of this movement, you can always build your own role from scratch. Understand issues by learning the science; it’s all online. Let curiosity guide your inquiries, and demand justification for misguided practices or harmful impacts you don’t agree with in your own company, community, or country. Seek inspiration from those around you, and capitalize on social media to share good ideas, not just selfies. By breeding more genuine commitment we can turn awareness into action. In the meantime, stay tuned for the next installment of ‘Another Face in the Race’ to find out what Cliff’s discovered in the Surfer Biome Project.


By Ben Fiscella Meissner, Parley Contributor

Ben is a writer-producer following water through life, currently pursuing a Master’s in marine biodiversity and conservation from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. He’s also the proud owner of one of the first 50 pairs of Adidas x Parley shoes, won through a pledge in the Parley AIR Instagram contest. After finishing his studies he will continue building bridges of art, conservation and science between seas and cities. Ben’s current project set to debut in late 2017, Nascent Cuba, is a mini-documentary exploring the relationship between conservation and coastal fishing towns on the largest island in the Caribbean. Follow his expedition on Instagram: @bmeiss || @parleyxxx