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Next wave in ocean monitoring arrives as scientists put Smartfins on surfboards


Sharlene King
23 February 2018

Each morning at dawn patrol surfers assess ocean and weather conditions before paddling out. Now the entire surf session experience is set to become more valuable, thanks to a new fin fitted with oceanographic sensors that will share data with scientists interested in the health of coastal zones.

Surfer and Southern Cross University researcher Dr Renaud Joannes-Boyau will be introducing audiences to the Smartfin, a high-tech surfboard fin, at the Byron Bay Surf Festival this weekend.

“Our oceans face some of the biggest threats related to climate change including warming, acidification, and sea level rise. However, there is a scarcity of data needed to understand these issues, especially in highly dynamic coastal zones,” said Dr Joannes-Boyau.

“Scientists hope they have found an answer to help fill these gaps in nearshore seawater chemistry measurements, in an unlikely group of citizen scientists - surfers.”

The Smartfin contains a temperature sensor, a GPS, a circuit board with a microcontroller, a Bluetooth chip, and a rechargeable battery. The next generation of Smartfin will include added sensors for pH, chlorophyll, salinity, and oxygen.

The idea and original design for the Smartfin was created by the non-profit organisation, The Lost Bird Project. The latest fin design is being developed by engineer Phil Bresnahan and coastal biogeochemist Dr Tyler Cyronak from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of San Diego.

Dr Cyronak was originally at Southern Cross University both as a student and researcher before moving to California.

“The current version of Smartfin measures motion, GPS location, and seawater temperature, all while surfers are doing what they love,” Dr Joannes-Boyau said.

“All the surfer has to do is attach the fin to their board, turn it on, and paddle out. During their surf session they effectively become an oceanographic buoy in the nearshore environment, a highly energetic area that is difficult to place traditional sensors in. Once they return from the surf, the surfer-turned-scientist then connects to the fin with their smart phone and the data gets sent to the cloud for researchers to access.”

A Smartfin pilot has been running since May 2017 in San Diego, California with the local Surfrider chapter acting as a distribution network for more than 50 fins. So far over one thousand ‘rides’ have been logged, each one representing hundreds of coastal seawater temperature measurements in Southern California.

Now Smartfin has expanded to Australia, where surfing is a way of life.

Smartfin is collaborating with researchers at Southern Cross University and other institutions in Noosa, the Gold Coast, Byron Bay, and Coffs Harbour to create a network of surf zone temperature sensors along the southern Queensland and northern New South Wales coasts.

“The plan is to tap into the enthusiasm Australians have for both surfing and environmental awareness and create stoke around ocean health and climate change issues,” said Dr Joannes-Boyau.

“We want you to surf for science!”


Meet Dr Renaud Joannes-Boyau and learn more about the Smartfin at the Surf Art Markets from 9am to 5pm in Denning Park on Saturday February 24 as part of the Byron Bay Surf Festival.

There’ll be opportunities to take the Smartfin for a testdrive and download the information about your surf session.

Look for the SCU Kombi.