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Getting to Know Cliff Kapono Vissla’s Man of Many Roles

Over the years, surfing has had a wide variety of characters, ranging from chargers and contenders to kooks and clowns. While these luminaries have worn numerous coats as surfers, shapers, documentarians, and innovators, true renaissance men have been few and far between. But Hawaii currently has a true renaissance man in its ranks, a surfer who brings together academia, philosophy, environmentalism, innovation, athleticism, and marketability.

Clifford Kapono grew up on the big island and comes from a respected Hawaiian family. While he was a talented surfer growing up, his family emphasized the importance of education. After graduating from Kamehameha High School, Cliff earned an undergraduate degree, then decided to pursue post-graduate work. He eventually ended up at Scripps in San Diego, where he earned a PhD in chemistry while dominating local breaks such as Blacks Beach. In the process, he gained a lot of attention as an environmentalist, and started the Surfer Biome Project, where he tested surfers’ poop to assess the bacteria present in our bodies and whether there are any similarities between us.

When Cliff finished his PhD, he wanted to find a way to bring his message of environmentalism to the surf world at large. He already had an audience with the academics, but needed a way to reach young people who didn’t naturally gravitate to scholarly journals. That opportunity presented itself when Vissla picked Cliff up as a team rider. Cliff rips on just about anything, styling on logs and alaias, charging huge Jaws and Mavs, steezing through slabby pits and boosting airs at will, so he was a natural fit for the free-thinking Vissla family. But he also continues his work as a scientist, writing grants and doing lab work that ranges from bacterial testing to reef mapping to gene splicing and environmental studies. At the same time, Cliff has joined the faculty at UH, and will be teaching surf-themed, environmentally focused classes there this year.

Cliff’s career as a professional surfer has really taken off over the past few years. His surf edits regularly pop up on the major websites (such as Stab, Magicseaweed, and Surfline), he was recently profiled by The Surfers Journal, he is quoted and featured in practically every environmentally themed surf article that is released, and was recently invited to Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch to consult with the WSL and the environmental arm of their corporation. But for all the fanfare, Cliff is a humble, thoughtful, unassuming local boy who simply wants to score fun waves with friends, bring the people of Hawaii together, and make a positive difference in the world. He splits his time between Big Island, Maui, and Oahu, where he spends time with his girlfriend, who is also a PhD scientist, Hawaiian cultural advocate, world-class longboarder, and navigator on the Hokuleia.

Next time you are on the shoulder at Pipe and see a crazy-haired Hawaiian in Vissla shorts rolling in to the second reef—or paddling out at Bowls and see him perched on the nose of a 10'6" log—throw Cliff a shaka and talk a bit of story. You aren’t likely to find a more friendly guy in the water.

To enjoy a bit of video of Cliff Kapono ripping a wide variety of surf craft, check out his latest edit here: Cliff Kapono ripping a wide