What if you could surf for science? That’s exactly what researches are hoping surfers will do with the creation of Smartfin. Researchers are hoping to tap in to the enthusiasm of surfers and work together with an unlikely group of citizen scientists to help combat climate change.

Smartfin is fitted with a GPS, a circuit board, a Bluetooth chip, a rechargeable battery, and sensors that measure temperature, location, motion and wave characteristics.

All surfers need to do is attach the fin to their board, turn it on and paddle out. While they surf they effectively become an oceanographic buoy in the near shore environment.

The fin collects data while surfers are riding waves which is then uploaded via a smartphone and then accessible for scientists around the world for their climate change research.

Renaud Joannes-Boyau with the Smartfin.

The fin was designed by engineer Phil Bresnahan and coastal biogeochemist Tyler Cyronak from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of San Diego. A pilot test was done in May 2017 with Surfrider Foundation who distributed 50 fins to surfers in San Diego. Now it’s available for the first time in Australia.

Last weekend at the Byron Bay Surf Festival Tracks spoke to Southern Cross University researcher and surfer Renaud Joannes-Boyau. He hopes that environmentally minded surfers of the North Coast will use the innovative fins to help researchers fight climate change.

Tracks: Are there certain objectives that scientists hope surfers will help them achieve?

Renaud Joannes- Boyau: Yes. Sometimes there will be specific goals attached to a specific place. For example, Byron Bay might have a temperature rise on top of the ocean water that indicates a hurricane could come. That would be a massive problem. By monitoring the temperature of Byron Bay alone we might see an increase of a few degrees every year – and some say that is happening – which might indicate that we might get those hurricane events. It depends on the places. But the idea is to get data for different projects.

Has there been sufficient data gathered from Smartfin so far to  help scientists somewhere reach a hypothesis?

Yes, it’s starting to. One of the problems before [Smartfin] was that you couldn’t put sensors in the near shore water because it moves too much. [But] surfers are there so we are using them to get the data. Right now, there are places where we are beginning to get data that is really feeding in to the science. In Australia, it would be more in terms of water temperature, water quality, impact on coral reefs, jelly fish and fish species but we don’t know that impact yet. This project developed by Southern Cross University will use this data, particularly on the calcification of small algae and corals.

What coastline is Southern Cross University interested in studying?

This coastline [Byron Bay], up to the Gold Coast and down to Coffs Harbour. Noosa as well could be a prime spot.

What’s been holding you back in getting the word out to the public and surfers in particular?

We’re a non-for-profit so we give the fins away for free. Right now, they have to be attached to some sort of research project. That’s why we’re doing the North Coast first given SCU’s location and getting money to sponsor the project. But it’s mainly getting scientists involved and spreading the word to surfers to start surfing the fins. It’s just the beginning. We’ll hopefully see in a couple of months what needs to be done.

If surfers want to get involved in the project what are the best means of them doing so?

They can go on the Smartfin.org website or they can contact people at Southern Cross University like myself and we can put them in touch with the people to get them Smartfins. For example, if they surf regularly in Byron Bay we would be really interested as well as people from the Gold Coast, Noosa and Coffs Harbour. If they’re surfing that and surfing all the time we’d be keen to hear from them.

How much time do you need them to spend in the water?

As much as possible. There is no limit but if someone surfs every morning that’s the best. But if someone surfs two or three times a week that’s good, and if someone only surfs once a week that’s still something. If it’s once a month that’s not enough.

Smartfin is a non-for-profit. It costs approximately $200 to make each fin.

You can donate to their cause here.