The Mentawai Islands of Indonesia have often been described as the best tropical surfing area in the world. Since their discovery by surfers back in the mid-1980’s, surfing adventurers have found a plethora of high-quality reef waves on the shores of these islands off the west coast of Sumatra.
While the islands now see a high volume of surfers for both boat charter trips ex-Padang on the Sumatran mainland and for the many resorts and surf camps now operating on the islands, it wasn’t always this way.
The islands themselves are unlike the large island of Sumatra nearby, separated by the treacherous 120 nautical mile Mentawai Strait. Where Sumatra is mountainous and volcanic, the Mentawai Islands are largely flat and there are no volcanoes.
This is because the islands have formed from millions of years of plate tectonic activity off the west side of Sumatra, where the Sunda plate and the Australian plate collide, with the Australian plate being forced under the Sunda plate. This tectonic activity has literally formed the Mentawai Islands from scrapings as the two great plates collide, moving past each other at an estimated 2 mm per year.
All this tectonic activity also results in volcanic eruptions, like the massive volcanic eruption that created the huge crater that became Lake Toba in Sumatra approximately 75 000 years ago. The tectonic activity also makes for frequent large earthquakes, some of the largest and most powerful on the planet, as the subduction zone between the two plates periodically releases accumulated energy.
The 9.2 earthquake on 26 December 2004 in the Aceh region of North Sumatra was one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded and the resulting tsunami across the Indian Ocean killed more than 300 000 people from Sri Lanka to Somalia. Another large earthquake in March 2005, a magnitude 8.6 further south on the same subduction fault, severely damaged many buildings on the islands of Nias and Simulue and also killed thousands of people in the region.
As the pattern of energy release resulting in major earthquakes is clearly moving south along the subduction zone, many scientist working in the field of plate tectonics say it is inevitable there will be a major earthquake in the region of the Mentawai Strait and the city of Padang, as centuries of accumulated energy are released with a powerful adjustment on the fault line.
The problem for the residents of Padang and the visitors to the Mentawai Islands is that no one knows when this major earthquake may happen or how large it will be. Surfing has brought unprecedented attention to the islands, as the Mentawai were virtually ignored for centuries with the vast majority of commercial activity in this region taking place on the other side of the great island of Sumatra, on the Straits of Malacca.
Arab and Chinese traders came to the area over the centuries in their dhows and junks and large centers of trading activity formed, particularly for spices, silk and other low volume-high value luxury goods. These goods were bought and sold in markets in Penang Island, Malacca, Singapore and other cities on Sumatra. These large and wealthy cities attracted tens of thousands of residents and the predatory attention of European empires like Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
The low, swampy, malarial Mentawai Islands on the Indian Ocean side of Sumatra didn’t attract much commercial activity at all. Surfing as we know it did not exist and the only people interested in the islands seemed to be the occasional timber dealers from the Sumatra mainland, to harvest the tropical forest trees on the islands and Christian missionaries, who took up residence on several islands, to convert the islanders to Catholicism.
The islanders were effectively isolated from mainland Sumatra by the Mentawai Strait and by the lack of commercial opportunities in the islands plus a reputation for mosquito-borne diseases, which kept outsiders at arm's length. The various tribal groups in the Mentawai speak their own distinct language and the post-independence Indonesian government in Jakarta has also shown little interest in the area. The local residents have only recently had developments like electricity and schools outside the main towns of Tua Pejat and Sikakap.
The story of how surfing arrived in the Mentawai is generally thought to be the famous meeting at Katiet Village on Sipora Island between Lance Knight, an Australian surfer who had made his way to Sipora by public boats and Martin Daly, the celebrated Australian captain of the Indies Trader. In 1990, Daly supposedly sailed around the southern end of Sipora and into the keyhole in the reef next to the wave the day after Knight had arrived in the village and first surfed one of the world’s best waves by himself.
Surfers had actually arrived in the Mentawai islands much earlier. A group of Australians had taken the public ferry to Sikakap and then a local boat to the Macaroni’s area and surfed the “world’s funnest left” for the first time in 1985. They bought supplies of rice, bottled water and instant noodles in town and camped on the point for several weeks, enduring miserable conditions of heavy rain, mosquitoes and centipedes but having one of the world’s best lefts to themselves long before anyone else even knew it existed.
The modern era of surfing in the Mentawai Islands kicked off in the early 1990’s with a series of live-aboard boat charter trips sponsored by international surf brands, with top surfers, photographers and videographers on board.
Live-aboard boat charters were common in the scuba diving industry, but a new and exotic way for surfers to access unridden waves. Boat charters were certainly well-suited to the Mentawai islands, with the quality of the surf, incredible number of surfing spots, lack of tropical cyclones and the many good anchorages.
Boats were a good idea also because of the complete lack of any infrastructure on land at the time, including accommodations, electricity and potable water and the rumored presence of dengue, encephalitis and powerful strains of cerebral malaria, a mosquito-transmitted parasite that can produce black urine, severe headaches and excruciating symptoms leading to death.
The Mentawai were out on the frontier in many ways and several operators rushed live-aboard boats to Padang on the Sumatra mainland to take advantage of the business opportunity. Boat charter operations at the time were virtually unregulated by anyone, it was just a matter of putting out the word, stocking the boat with food, water, beer and diesel fuel from the many ethnic Chinese operated provision suppliers in Padang, then pulling the anchor at 18:00 and crossing the Mentawai Strait at 10 knots to arrive in the Playgrounds area 12 hours later at sunrise.
Many of the early visitors to the Playgrounds area were stunned at the sheer variety and profusion of high-quality waves in a relatively small area. There were perfect tropical reef waves everywhere you looked and as there were only a few other boat charters in operation at the time and no one had a land camp, they saw no need to look around - there were plenty of waves right here, thanks.
What the Mentawai and the Playgrounds area in particular also had at the time were local Indonesian fishermen, mostly from mainland Sumatra, working the area with dynamite and ammonium nitrate fertilizer bombs, a form of fishing that can greatly increase the daily catch but is of course, terribly destructive to coral reefs and marine life in general. The entire Playgrounds area was a graveyard of shattered staghorn and other corals after years of blast fishing, with the usual procedure being a morning of bombing the reef, then a quick crossing of the Mentawai Strait to sell the fish in Padang.
As surfing gained a foothold in the Mentawai Islands, destructive practices like blast fishing and indiscriminate logging of the tropical forest have decreased as there are now other ways to earn a cash income in the islands, most of them related to surfing boat charters and land-based resorts, which provide paying jobs for local residents.
Along with an economic boom in the islands themselves brought on by the popularity of surfing in the area, there has also been an increase in economic activity in the mainland area around the port city of Padang. With more than sixty live-aboard charter boats by pre-pandemic count buying supplies in town for their trips, mostly from ethnic Chinese-owned provision shops and distributors, including food, bottled water and soft drinks and a huge amount of beer, far more than was sold in Padang before the popularity of live-aboard surfing boat charters to the Mentawai Islands, the business has had a substantial economic impact.
Sporadic attempts have been made by the government to tax the live-aboard boat charter business, everything from forced registration of the foreign-flagged boats to surfers being made to pay a tax to the Regency and wearing a plastic wristband their entire trip to ensure they have paid.
None of these schemes have been particularly successful, due to the culture of graft and corruption in Indonesian government affairs and disputes between the various levels of government from the Mentawai Regency to the Province of West Sumatra and the federal Indonesian government as to who gets what (and how much) from the tourism tax.
For their part, the boat charter people certainly have their individual rivalries and disputes, but are largely united in their conclusion that the local and federal Indonesia authorities should leave the business alone as their attempts to regulate have done more harm than good and amount to little more than officially sanctioned harassment of successful employment-creating businesses.
They base their opinions on many examples, but particularly the performance of the Indonesian authorities and Coast Guard in the search for Brett Archibald, the South African who fell off his surf charter boat at night and survived, floating in the Mentawai Strait for the next 28 hours.
The authorities proved to be utterly incompetent, having no knowledge of what to do or how to do it, before Archibald was finally spotted and rescued by another surf charter boat captained by veteran surfer and skipper Tony Eltherington, an Australian expatriate with many years of knowledge and experience in the Mentawai Islands.
Of course, the main attraction for the Mentawai area, the circumstances that have lured thousands of surfers annually from around the world to a rather obscure group of hot, humid, jungle-covered, malaria-plagued, commercially insignificant islands off the coast of Sumatra are the waves. In this context, the Mentawai Islands are truly blessed, as there is perhaps the greatest variety of coral reef breaks in the smallest area of anywhere yet documented on earth.
The secret of the surfing perfection of the Mentawai Islands is a combination of swell and wind and their position slightly to the south of the equator. Being so close to the equator means a general lack of wind and no tropical cyclones.
Bali, another popular surfing island in the 18 000 islands of the Indonesian archipelago, is about 8 degrees south of the equator and gets much more wind than the Mentawai area. Lack of wind is not good for windsurfing, sailing or kiteboarding, but the light wind conditions in the Mentawai are ideal for clean surface conditions, which is what surfers are looking for.
During the April to October prime season, when long-period groundswell from the higher latitudes of the Indian Ocean is extremely consistent, winds are generally light in a 50/50 ratio from either the northwest or the southeast until mid-May, when the southeast wind becomes more prevalent. The light winds pattern returns again in mid-September with a 50/50 situation between southeast and northwest winds.
With the general rule being lefts are offshore on the southeast wind and right are offshore on the northwest, depending on the time of year surfers can expect an equal number of lefts and rights or if in the high season, more lefts than rights. While all of the tropical regions of our planet have yet to be completely surveyed for surfing opportunities, when they have been in the next twenty or so years, it is likely the Mentawai Islands of Indonesia will retain the title of the best tropical surfing area on earth.
Text and Images © John Seaton Callahan / surfEXPLORE®