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A Graying Surfer's Love Affair

COLUMN ONE

In the '60s, he was a golden boy riding the waves. Since those days, Rick Grigg has discovered new worlds--and himself--without ever giving up the sea.

August 17, 2000|JOHN BALZAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The future blew in and announced itself on Jan. 10, 1953. A storm hurled monster waves against the Southern California coast. Surfers grabbed their telephones. Where were waves this big rideable? Answer: Up toward Santa Barbara at a place called Rincon. Woodies and pickup trucks and convertibles caravaned up Highway 1 full of surfboards, teenage adrenaline and white knuckles. The Malibu boys had never seen anything like these 20-foot thunder-boomers peeling off the point. It scared Grigg silly. But he looked around in the water and saw he wasn't as scared as everyone else, and it gave him confidence. Oh, how he ripped that day.

"It was like discovering your destiny," he says. Eventually the experience would draw him to Hawaii, beyond Waikiki to the barely explored North Shore of Oahu where the winter surf broke bigger still.

Of course there was duality to contend with. His mother had not raised a beach bum. And her guidance would send him to Stanford for a degree in biology, then on to the University of Hawaii for a master's, and eventually to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego for his doctorate.

For a decade, he would be featured as a star in the surf magazines. In 1968, he was ranked the No. 1 big wave rider in the world. Life magazine did a spread on him. On the cover of the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine in March 1969, he was portrayed as a bespectacled Clark Kent who at Scripps devised a scientific method for predicting surf from weather maps, a theory he would later confirm by changing costume and paddling out to ride these waves just as they arrived.

He starred in the film "Surfari." He was hired to teach actress Yvette Mimieux to surf for a TV episode, except he couldn't teach Hollywood that a surfer needs a more substantial bikini top in a wipeout. In Tahiti, he crewed on the famed sailing schooner Wanderer, until he got drunk and was booted off for disrupting the sleep of the captain, actor Sterling Hayden. With astronaut Scott Carpenter, he spent a year on a Navy diving team. The training culminated with an experiment that put Grigg and other aquanauts in an inner-space station 205 feet deep for six weeks off La Jolla to see how humans survived under crushing pressure.

Drawn to beautiful women because of their power--he is honest about it--he married three times, and is a father and grandfather.

"The keyword at the center of this is freedom," he says now, sipping beer on the patio of his hillside Honolulu home, with Koko Head visible to the east, Diamond Head to the west and 3,000 miles of purple-blue Pacific in front. He wears swim trunks, exposing legs that are a fraction short, built for balance. "Not total freedom. Because we need security; we need to bond and love and to be loved. But the undoing of most men is the lack to dare."

Colored Coral Lured Him Into the Deep

Polished, it looks like stone; underwater it appears to be a plant; close-up it is revealed as a colony of animals--precious coral has gripped the human imagination for centuries. Paleolithic man gathered pieces cast upon the beach by storms and shaped them into adornment. Ancient Greeks attributed the tint of red coral to the blood of Medusa.

Today, the red, pink, ruby, black and gold corals are the forestry of the sea, still sought for jewelry and carvings. They lured Rick Grigg into the deep, just as waves enticed him to the water. He has studied them for 40 years and ranks among the world's experts.

Unlike the slow-growing bedrock corals of tropical reefs, precious corals create forests of shrubby, fan-like "trees," actually colonies of polyps, that cling to the rock bottom and grow up to 2 1/2 inches a year. In Hawaii, black coral trees begin at depths of 160-200 feet, beyond the reach of recreational scuba divers. Others live in the eternal darkness five times deeper.

Coral jewelry carries a stigma in some consumer circles. Indiscriminate bottom dragging with nets has ravaged too much of the sea floor.

It need not be this way. Since 1958, Hawaiian scuba divers have harvested black coral selectively, tree by tree. For a while, Grigg dove commercially for coral; his research forms the basis of Hawaii's harvest quotas; his wife, Maria, works in the showroom of a coral jewelry manufacturer.

More recently, Grigg has given encouragement to a Honolulu company experimenting with advanced submersibles to harvest red corals and the strangely lustrous gold coral that Grigg discovered in 1971. A necklace of marble-sized red coral beads commands more than $50,000 retail.

"Fishing, and the resources of the ocean? They can and should be used by mankind. We can profit from them. That's an ethical proposition," Grigg says. "The question is how. The answer is we should use these resources in a sustainable fashion. And in that, there is complexity. . . ."

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