Why do some waves break differently?

Understanding tides, beaches and why waves break the way they do.

Wind and storms at sea form pressure differences on the ocean surface. As these thousands of miles they gather together to form swells. As the swell approaches the land and the sea bottom gets shallower, the waves become higher and narrower and the distance between each wave becomes shorter. The wave becomes higher until it collapses and topples over. This is called surf.

Different waves

Hollow waves

Hollow waves break suddenly with a lot of power. Hollow, dumping waves that break on the shore are called a shore break. Tubes and barrels can be found in hollow waves.

Spilling waves

This type of wave occurs when the crest (or top) of the wave tumbles down onto its own face as it breaks. In surfers terms, these can sometimes be referred to as fat waves. These are good introductory waves when you are learning to take off on and ride unbroken waves.

Surging waves

A surging wave may never break as it approaches the beach. This is because it is very deep beneath the wave. Surging waves often occur around rocks. You can’t and wouldn’t surf a surging wave.

Beaches and waves

This beach has an even sand bottom that is not very steep. Generally the waves will spill as they get closer to the beach. Conditions at low tide might be quite different than high tide.

At this beach there will be more spilling waves at high tide. When the tide goes out there is less water covering the sand bar, the waves will start dumping on the sand bar due to the steepness of the sand bottom.

At this beach the waves will be spilling at low tide. When the tide comes in and the waves hit the steep rise they will start dumping. This is commonly called a shore break.