Cyclonic left-breaking reef wave located near the southwest tip of Tahiti Iti; regarded since the late '90s as one of the world's most challenging and dangerous surf breaks. "Teahupoo isn't a wave, it's a war zone," surf journalist Gary Taylor wrote in 2000. "A freak of nature that some bastard decided to call a surf spot."
Waves at Teahupoo (pronounced "cho-pu," which translates more or less to "broken skulls") take shape about one-third of a mile offshore, and are biggest and best between May and September. Riders usually arrive by boat; paddling from the beach takes about 15 minutes. Roughly 50 yards beyond the Teahupoo reef, the water depth abruptly drops to more than 300 feet. The crescent-shaped perimeter of the Teahupoo reef gives the wave its basic form, with each swell bending in on itself as it refracts around the reef, but it's the sudden deep-to-shallow change in water depth that creates the roaring, water-smashing tubes.
Waves as small as three feet can be ridden at Teahupoo, and at six feet it still has a reasonable shape and demeanor. Above eight feet, however, Teahupoo gets exponentially stronger, thicker, rounder, and more malevolent: each ride begins with a vertical entry; each wave transforms into a thick-walled cavern, which in turn collapses with enough force to send shock waves running through the still water of the nearby channel. The ride on a 10-foot Teahupoo wave isn't particularly long, usually about 75 yards, but is relentless from start to finish, with the only objective being to get inside the tube early, hold a line toward the channel, and exit as the wave momentarily slows before eating itself on the reef.
Tahitian surfers rode small waves at Teahupoo in 1985, but Hawaiian bodyboarders Mike Stewart and Ben Severson are credited as the first to ride the break at full strength a few years later. By the early '90s, visiting pros began making semiregular forays out to what was then known only as the break at "the end of the road." (Teahupoo is located directly offshore from the end of a paved road.) As seen in the imperiously titled Quiksilver Country video from 1996, world champions Kelly Slater and Tom Carroll rode bravely and stylishly in eight-foot Teahupoo surf, although the break again went unidentified.
The Tahiti Pro debuted at Teahupoo as a second-tier pro event in 1997, and became a men's and women's world tour contest in 1999. Winners of the contest over the years include Slater, Andy Irons, Mark Occhilupo, CJ Hobgood, Bobby Martinez and Keala Kennelly. Tahitian surfers Manoa Drollet, Raimana Van Bastolaer, Vetea David, and Manoa David meanwhile have ridden Teahupoo with verve and style equal to or greater than most of the world tour pros.
One week prior to the opening of the 2000 Tahitian Pro, local pro Briece Taerea was caught inside by a 15-foot set wave and driven into the reef, broke his neck and back in three places, and died. Four months later Hawaiian big-wave hulk Laird Hamilton towed into a 18-foot Teahupoo wave that nearly beggared description; photographer Jack McCoy saw the 6'3", 220-pound Hamilton as "a little speck of human, charging for his life, doing what none of us ever imagined possible" as the wave poured over him "like liquid napalm." Hamilton made the wave, then sat and wept in the channel.
The 2011 Billabong Pro (formerly the Tahitian Pro) was put on hold on August 28th when a giant southwest swell steamrolled the break for an entire day of competition. The "Code Red Swell" as it came to be known, drew many of the gamest big-wave surfers in the world, who proceded to tow themselves into the the thickest, most dangerous barrels of their lives; a wave caught by California's Nathan Fletcher made the cover of seven different international surf magazines and won the Billabong XXL Ride of the Year and Monster Tube award.
Teahupoo: Tahiti's Mythic Wave, a photo-book, was published in 2007. Blackwater: the Story of a Place Called Teahupoo, a documentary, also came out that year.