Around the Pier: Scripps Scientists Help Create and Distribute a "Smartfin" that Turns Surfers into Citizen Scientists



A recent Surfrider chapter meeting in the garden of the Karl Strauss Brewery in San Diego offered a taste of science as a pairing with the brews on tap.

The quarterly meeting of surfers featured an unprecedented prize giveaway: a select group of those in attendance would go home with a new Smartfin, a surfboard fin equipped with sensors to record ocean data. 

At the opening of the meeting, Andrew Stern, Smartfin’s founder, stood in front of the crowd. 

“It’s our first time putting this out in the world,” Stern said of the Smartfin, grinning widely at the group. “I’ve got goose bumps thinking about it!” 

As he spoke, two scientists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, Phil Bresnahan and Tyler Cyronak – who are also key members of the Smartfin team-smiled and clapped from the audience.

Smartfin is an innovative collaboration with researchers at Scripps Oceanography, one of the world’s leading institutions for earth and environmental science, and Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of the world’s oceans through environmental activism.

Stern spent most of his career as a neurologist in Rochester, New York, but now devotes himself full-time to raising awareness about climate change and other environmental issues. Smartfin is run as an initiative of Lost Bird, the environmental nonprofit foundation Stern co-founded with his friend and brother-in-law Todd McGrain. He got the idea to equip surfboards with sensors several years ago, after speaking with an oceanographer about climate change’s impacts on the ocean, and how important it would be to gather more coastal data to learn more about these impacts. Surfers, Stern realized, would be the perfect people to do this. 

Surfrider CEO Chad Nelsen was one of the special guests at the meeting, and he echoed this sentiment. 

“Surfers are in the water more than any other group,” Nelsen said. “If we get these fins in the hands of surfers, they will gather data all over the world.”

But Stern knew he needed oceanographers on the team to translate his idea into reality, and to make sure the data surfers were collecting was accurate and useful. 

“Scripps is maybe the number one [oceanographic] institution in the world, certainly among the top few. I walked in there and I thought ‘Oh my God I’m meeting with these fancy people,’ and then I saw wetsuits over every banister, and I took pictures of surfboards in every office,” Stern said. “It was just the perfect fit.”

Stern met with Andreas Andersson, Cyronak’s supervisor and a chemical oceanographer in the Scripps Geosciences Research Division. Stern explained his idea to Andersson, who was immediately on board. Soon after the meeting, Cyronak started working on the project full-time as a postdoctoral scholar, and both Cyronak and Andersson equipped their boards with Smartfins and made surfing part of their research duties. 

Bresnahan, who recently earned his doctorate from Scripps Oceanography, and whose thesis research focused on developing new instruments to measure ocean pH, including a sensor package that was deployed on stand-up paddleboards, was brought onto the team later to add his engineering expertise to the fin sensor development.

That first meeting was about two years ago. Since then the fin has gone through many different prototypes, and is now finally ready to be tested by the surfing public. In its current model, the fin records ocean temperature and GPS measurements, which can then be uploaded and shared with the scientists via a smartphone app. 

After Stern’s opening remarks at the meeting, Bresnahan and Cyronak each spoke for a few minutes about the science of global warming and ocean acidification, which is a consequence of the seas taking up excessive amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Cyronak told the group about how warmer ocean temperatures are causing sea levels to rise, and corals to bleach, expelling the symbiotic algae that live in their tissue and give the corals color, and nutrients. Over the past two years, unprecedented mass bleaching events have struck two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef. 

“We have up to seventy percent coral loss in the northern parts of the Great Barrier Reef,” Cyronak said. “To put this in perspective, the Great Barrier Reef is about 1,400 miles long, about twice the length of California. It’s a huge ecosystem that impacts a lot of people.”

Bresnahan followed with a discussion of his work to make a seawater pH sensor small enough to embed in a surfboard fin. He also showed a map of the local La Jolla surf breaks displaying pH data he collected by using a newer, much larger version of the seawater pH sensor tethered to a paddleboard. This sensor was developed in Scripps oceanographer Todd Martz's lab and deployed in collaboration with Cyronak and Andersson.

Finally, the fins were raffled off. More than 20 happy surfers went home with a new Smartfin, equipped to gather important data on San Diego’s coastal ocean.

“There are still a tremendous number of questions that we haven’t been able to answer in the ocean, because it’s really hard to make meaningful measurements at high enough spatial and temporal resolution to figure out the answers. Our best methods right now are taking bottle samples, putting moorings in the water, putting buoys in the water, and it’s just really time-consuming and expensive,” Bresnahan said. “But to take advantage of this resource, having the surfing community that’s in the water every day go out and collect data means we have much more info about what’s happening.”

Stern says that in addition to the important data-gathering function of the Smartfin, it’s also a great way to start a different kind of conversation about climate change.

“Surfers are worshipped by young people,” Stern said. “It’s hard to engage young people in environmental stuff, and you know if I go talk to the Sierra Club, they’re all old folks like me. And it’s also hard to talk about climate change in a way that's not awful, boring depressing, or gloomy.” Smartfin is different, he said.

“There’s nothing gloomy or depressing about Smartfin. It’s entertaining. People want to hear more,” Stern said. “It lends itself to goofiness, and at the heart of it it’s deadly serious.”

Smartfin’s next step is to add a pH sensor, which Bresnahan is currently developing and testing. Meanwhile, a group of select surfers on the waves of San Diego will be out there, doing oceanographic research in the line-up.

Cyronak added that working on this project and being able to combine the two things that connect him to the ocean—surfing and oceanography— has been a dream come true for him and many of the other surfer-scientists on the project. 

“You’re already deeply connected to the ocean as a surfer, and as an oceanographer, but maybe in two completely different ways. Like as a surfer it’s about the beauty of the ocean, there’s dolphins, you’re just out there alone, and it just feels good,” he said. “Then as an oceanographer, you’re interested in what’s happening, and the actual mechanisms of what’s going on so to have them come together is a dream.”

“This is just such a unique project, that has such a unique voice where we can communicate science to the public, and engage citizen scientists,” he added. “You have people out there in the water anyway, and they’re collecting data that scientists can actually use. I mean how much cooler does it get?”

For more on Smartfins, including how to get one, visit

–      Mallory Pickett





Related Image Gallery: "Smartfin" Turns Surfers into Citizen Scientists

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