Op-Ed: The Mentawai Islands vs. Wave Pools

I’m sitting here in the Mentawai Islands, a sand-fringed, coral-festooned cornucopia for surfers. Consistent swells rolling into this region of Indonesia ensure rideable waves daily. I know it, as do tens of thousands of other surfers worldwide.

Add to these numbers charter boats and surf resorts multiplying exponentially, along with readily available flights, and you’ve the perfect storm to turn paradise into a palm-hugged arena of surf rage.

The Mentawai’s have around 43 charter boats plying its waters with an average of 10 surfers per boat. Land camps? Somewhere in the region of 40 plus, that includes everything from home stays to high-end resorts, hosting anywhere from 4 to 40 guests at a time.

Undeniably, the Mentawai’s host a wide array of incredible waves. But when you factor in that on any one day, taking in the tide, wind direction, and swell size, only a certain number of breaks will be suitable for surfing. Add to this the crowds – most of whom have paid handsomely for a 10 to 14-day trip – and you’ll find packs of voracious wave-hungry surfers at a limited number of spots. And all with the clock ticking down on their time in bathtub warm water.

Surf Lakes Australia Wave Pool Yepoon
It’s a wave fitting for a boatload of surf tourists looking for guaranteed tube time. Occy at Surf Lakes

But sometimes, one group of surfers will zig, while another zags, and an empty session (or part of a session) with just your friends can be had. It happens regularly enough for many to want to return annually. You put your time in, paired with a guide who knows the area well, a reliable operator, and your reward can be a session of a lifetime.

Though, in reality, it’s one hell of a gamble. An expensive and time-consuming one at that. So, where do wave pools come into all this? It’s almost sacrilegious – and some here look at me certifiably – to mention wave pools when you’re in the Ment’s.

While pools don’t have the heady allure of a tropical surf vacation, they have convenience in their corner. Well, that, plus the reliability factors of knowing what the wave size will be, an exact time, and knowing how many waves will come through in an allotted hour. Plus, no one’s likely to paddle over the top of you, and the mosquito count is likely lower too.

Everyone takes their turn and has an equal opportunity to have unchallenged waves. Between the wave pools currently in operation, you’re looking at an average number of 9 to 18 people per session, per break. This gives you anywhere from 10 – 15 waves per session per person.

wave pool tube
There’s a hypnotic beauty to waves, whether ocean or pool born. Photo Otis Stevens

With pools being built (or in planning stages) for warm areas, think the desert pools in California and Arizona, Queensland, Hawaii, Florida, Sao Paulo, Mexico, Dominican Republic, and Vietnam, you’re looking at tropical trips with guaranteed waves.

But back to the Ment’s vs Wave Pools, can one be better than the other? It’s all a matter of perspective and suitability. I’ve seen breaks here in the Mentawais with 60 people in the water, plus four charter boats and six budget camp and resort boats anchored alongside. I’ve also pulled up to empty surf spots. In a nutshell, crowds are common – some mellow, some willing to paddle around, through, and over each other to get waves. Though look at the photos used in marketing the place, it appears near empty and idyllic.

But to be fair, it’s not all perfect with wave pools, either. In the images of precision-guided swell, you can’t tell how bitterly cold the water is in winter – which is valid for many current wave tubs in operation. Alaia Bay sure looks pretty, surrounded by snow and majestic mountains, but when the ice forms on the water, it becomes a little less inviting. And who’d have thought wave pools would be promoting bathwater-warm jacuzzis in their winter media posts?

Wave pools aren’t a solution or a replacement for any of the world’s crowded surf zones, but rather an opportunity with the benefit of reliability and convenience. And while convenience is the antithesis of adventure, people are willing to pay for either.

Editor’s note: This Op-Ed post comes to us from a-wishes-to-remain-anonymous surf camp staffer in the Mentawais who wondered one crowded day at Lance’s Left if, maybe, there wasn’t a better way to score waves.