Surf Reports

Understanding Surf Reports For Ocean Photography

Image by Kat Nielsen

Surf Reports provide up to date information that will assist you in finding the ideal conditions for surfing or ocean photography. Being able to understand a surf report arms you with all the knowledge you need to establish the best conditions in your area.

Reading a surf report and going to a break to review these conditions regularly will make understanding surf conditions much easier to comprehend, especially if you are new to ocean photography and surfing.


Nearly all surf reports will state wave height, swell period, wind direction and tides for each day.

A swell period is a distance measured in seconds between the apexes of two consecutive waves.

All swell is created by storm cells that are circulating the globe in or around the latitude of 40 degrees in the southern hemisphere. These storms circulate the earth and are slightly drawn off course by a variety of factors including warm water currents to land masses. If a storm maintains the right conditions, it can grow in strength generating insanely large waves. The proximity of the centre of the storm in relation to, the surf break is what determines the period.

Large cells that remain hundreds of miles offshore create giant seas (wind wave), these seas then radiate outwards some of which join other waves until they become a line of swell, as these lines of swell continue to travel they start to separate further apart and increase in speed. This, in turn, increases the volume of each individual swell line and the wave period increasing the force it will impact the surf break with.

The period is one of the most critical factors of any report, as the same day, same conditions with a light east wind and a 2 meter swell at 9 seconds will maybe bring 2-3 foot. However, the same conditions at 19 seconds could bring 6-8 foot surf at the same break.

swell period explained


The swell direction relates to the angle a wave approaches the shoreline.

Identifying the direction of the swell will give you an idea of how the wave will be hitting your area. This also can have dramatic impacts on certain breaks due to the geographical positioning of a reef or headland; it is something that can only really be advised on via observation. Read a chart, check a break, make notes, wait for different conditions and check the same break and compare notes. You will start to notice pretty quickly precisely what each place needs.


Offshore winds are ideal for surfing, often resulting in a barreling wave. No wind results in glassy conditions creating prime surfing conditions. Offshore winds blow from land into the ocean, creating a smooth and well-groomed swell.

Onshore winds, it blows from the ocean towards the shore. This causes an irregular and bumpy surface to the wave. This wind will break up the swells creating smaller, irregular waves.

Understanding wind direction and speed will provide you will the best time to go out. Typically, early morning sees the calmest conditions, generally because the temperature between the earth surface and the sea temperature are similar. As these temperature differences increase so does the strength of the wind, it is also influenced by where a trough is lying if a high or low-pressure system is approaching and even the pressure differences between the isobars on a synoptic chart. Understanding a synoptic chart can be pretty tricky but some basics are: a low-pressure system rotates clockwise (wind) while looking at the chart you will see an L at the centre and a series of concentric circles surrounding it, although they are not always circular in shape, these lines indicate joining areas of equal atmospheric pressure.

These are called isobars, at any position on an isobar that is showing a low-pressure system, if you were to draw an arrow in a clockwise direction pointing inwards at an angle of 22 degrees that would roughly give you the wind direction. Conversely, a high-pressure system rotates counterclockwise only this time the arrow points outwards. Other factors to indicate wind strength is if the isobars are located close to each other, this shows a steep pressure gradient meaning high wind.

wind direction chart


Tides are very predictable, but each break will have its ideal tidal times. Tides have a significant role when it comes to the way a wave breaks at a particular surf spot. Some spots do better on a high tide while others perform better on a low to medium tide. Knowing which tide is best for your ideal surf location takes time to visit your preferred break regularly, so you truly understand it.

Generally, a beach break is best at a medium to high tide sand bars can make it too shallow or exposed on a low tide causing the wave to close out or break all at once also known as a shore break.

Reef breaks work best on a low to medium tide. A higher tide can result in the waves reducing in size as they require a shallow bottom to create the friction needed to make the wave stand up. You need to be aware of exposed coral and rocks on reef breaks at low tide though.

Hopefully this provides some insight into surf reports. Next time have a look at your local surf report and venture down to your nearest break to review the conditions this will give you the greatest understanding of how the swell behaves and the more you do this the easier it will be to get an understanding of how the ocean performs in different conditions.

Photo by  Autri Taheri

Photo by Autri Taheri