#DefendersofFun: Cliff Kapono, Scientist, Surfer, Environmental Warrior

Cliff Kapono in his lab.

#DefendersOfFun is a look into the adventurous lives of outdoor advocates working to better the outdoor community and protect the wild places we have fun in. Their stories, their words. Share your outdoor story on Instagram @DefendersOfFun #DefendersOfFun.

“I remember going down to the beach with my dad and just playing in the sand. He was showing me how to surf before I even touched a surfboard. We would grab different kinds of seaweeds and shells on the beach and talk about how the ocean brought it to the shore with the waves and the winds. I didn’t know at the time, but he was helping me understand how I might one day harness the same energy.


Dad would tell me the Hawaiian name and the Latin scientific name for each organism; he put a strong emphasis on being able to communicate not to just our own people, but to others who may visit our islands. The more I became exposed to science as a child, the more I realized that Hawai‘i is arguably one of the greatest places on Earth to interpret the natural world.

I’m now in my final year of a doctoral program at the University of California San Diego, where I’m a joint student between the Chemistry department and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in the Program for Interdisciplinary Environmental Research.

“This research is trying to redefine what it means to be human.”

I study the way we as humans interact with our environment on a molecular level. I try to look for the bacteria and molecules that are found in nature and on us and see if there are commonalities. I’m hoping to discover a new way to describe just how intimately connected we are to the natural world — it’s something that has not been effectively communicated with empirical evidence until now.

My most recent project is called the Surfer Biome Project. It is a subset of the American Gut Project and is funded by the Global Health Institute at UCSD. It’s based on the fundamental idea that we as humans greatly depend on the bacteria, fungus and other microbes that live on and in our body. Without this important component, we are more at risk to disease. I am trying to see if surfers (or people who frequent the ocean) have a different microbial community and if that community is affected by different oceans around the world.

Cliff Kapono standing in Iceland

This research is trying to redefine what it means to be human. Maybe one day we will go into the doctor’s office and not just get our height, weight and temperature read — we might get our microbes sequenced, and maybe that will tell us more about how healthy we are.

Surfers are so unique in that they are so dedicated to immersing themselves in their environment. They literally will risk life and limb to stay in the ocean. There are more than 22 million surfers in the world from all races, nationalities and geographic regions. If we find bacteria similarities between surfers across the world and those bacteria aren’t found in non surfers, we might be able to attribute some of these microbes to being surfer or ocean specific. This will give us a better way to determine how the environment affects our health.

“It is kind of weird just asking people for poop samples out of the blue.”

If we can use science to “prove” that the ocean influences our lives on a molecular level, then there will be more incentive to protect these spaces from abuse and desecration. It kind of sucks that we need to make it about humans, but if that is what we have to do to protect the environment, then so be it. Through this type of research, we might be able to show the health benefits of a clean ocean and that if we destroy it, then we may potentially loose the greatest therapeutic agents of our time.

So far I have travelled to Ireland, Morocco, England, Iceland, California and Hawaii to sample surfers. People have been awesome. I remember sitting outside of a bakery in San Francisco asking people if they wanted to participate in my research, and people started calling their friends, and then those friends called their friends.


I usually try to surf in the area for a little bit to gain trust for the locals. It is kind of weird just asking people for poop samples out of the blue! I tell them that I am going to swab (with a Q-tip) their forehead, ear, inside of the nose, outside of the eye, chest, naval, hands and feet to see what kinds of bacteria are on them. I also tell them that I am going to look at the types of chemicals found on their skin as well. After they agree, I slip in that I will need a poop sample. More times then not they agree to that as well — they take their own by the way.
I am still running the samples, but I am beginning to see cool differences between the surfers of different regions. In science we usually submit our findings to a community of experts. Once they make sure the analysis was done properly, we share it with the rest of the world. I am hoping to have this done by the end of this summer.

“What if being outside is the most effective prescription for the human condition? That would be rad.”

[“Island Earth” filmmaker] Cyrus Sutton is a really good friend who I met up here while going to school in San Diego. We ended up traveling back to Hawai’i and trying to share how difficult the GMO [genetically modified organism] controversy is to digest — for me, GMO is a tool that has been unfairly misused by many agrochemical companies at home in Hawai’i. The film tries to decriminalize GMO themselves and highlight the actions of many companies as the real culprit. My research uses GMO to help understand more about the ocean and also find new medicines.

Other parts of my research look at really cool genes found in coral bacteria. These bacteria are very interesting to study but often times I cannot grow them in the lab. So I aim to study their DNA and genes through biotechnology. Inserting and deleting genes into “lab” bacteria from the “natural” coral bacteria. The genetic modification steps in my research are very similar to the methods used for agriculture GMO, but the intent for it is often very different.


Being able to simultaneously integrate my commitment to surfing while also helping the world understand more about human health is amazing. Being from Hilo [on the Big Island of Hawai’i] I come from a place where there is a lot of love for the land, the sea, and the people. It’s an activated love — the passion to protect our culture and environment sometimes may come off as a little aggressive, but it is something that we are born into. We treat the land as a family member, the ocean as a provider, the sky as a philosopher and each other as extensions of that.

Once the results of my study are ready to be shared, I really want to encourage citizen participation in the study. It would be awesome to open up this study to all outdoor recreationalists. Perhaps then we might be able to see how does the outdoors affect us on that molecular level. What if being outdoors gives us bacteria and molecules that keep us healthy? What if being outside is the most effective prescription for the human condition? That would be rad.

Cliff Kapono, as told to Dirtbag Darling

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