Reef Check News

Living Life on the Edge: Richard W. Grigg (1937-2014)


Gregor (center) with Ricky and Maria Grigg, April 2011

By Gregor Hodgson, Reef Check Foundation Executive Director

On May 22, the world lost one of the most charismatic and hard charging individuals I have ever met. Ricky was my mentor during my PhD studies at the University of Hawaii and became a lifelong friend. Ricky Grigg grew up near the beach in Santa Monica, a part of Los Angeles, California. There he learned to swim, surf, and free dive to collect sand dollars and catch lobster, which he sold to tourists. His surfing instructor was Buzzy Trent a lifeguard, boxer and one of the top surfers of the 1940s. They surfed a 10’ 6” (3.2 m) board made from wood and Styrofoam with no wetsuit because they had not been invented yet. At 16, using his savings from shining shoes, he first flew to Hawaii for the summer to surf. Two years later, in 1955, Ricky, now a lifeguard, won the first paddle-board race from Catalina Island to Manhattan Beach, California, a distance of 32.5 miles (52 km). To practice, he paddled 10 miles daily along the coast for three months from the Santa Monica pier to Topanga Pt. (near the present offices of Reef Check).

Although millions of people surf, only a tiny fraction can surf big waves. By 1958, Ricky joined a group of pioneering California surfers who the year before, were the first to surf truly giant (>10 m face) waves at Waimea Bay on the north shore of Oahu. Ricky became one of the best big wave surfers in the world and won the prestigious Duke Kahanamoku contest in 1967. After completing his undergraduate studies in biology at Stanford (1958), endorsements, commercials and surf films such as Surfari (1967) helped Rick pay for his Masters at University of Hawaii (1964) along with his PhD at Scripps (1970).

Rick sailed to Tahiti in 1959, where he learned to free dive to 30 m for pearls. The fact that he was able to hold his breath for 3 minutes really helped on his dives. He started to wonder about the sustainability of the fishery. After returning to Hawaii, Rick studied the ecology, life history and physiology of black coral. This information was used to help create the first management plan in the world for a coral fishery. Later, Rick was involved in advising on how to manage the precious coral fisheries in several countries. After joining the faculty of the oceanography department at University of Hawaii, Rick began a research program on deep sea precious corals that ultimately led to the discovery of 93 species, of which 12 were new species and 24 were new records for Hawaii. One species of black coral was renamed in his honor -- Antipathes griggi Opresko, 2009.

In 1993, a coral reef geologist at University of Miami, Robert “Bob” Ginsburg, invited about 250 coral reef scientists to a meeting in Miami in an effort to determine the status of the world’s coral reefs. At that time, there was a big debate with some arguing that coral reefs were in trouble. It was obvious to everyone by the end of the first day that it would be impossible to answer the original question. No one was systematically monitoring reefs globally. During the evening sessions a number of scientists (including Roger Griffis, Clive Wilkinson, Jeremy Jackson, John Ogden, Rick and I) got together and agreed with Bob’s suggestion that we should declare a Year of the Reef to promote more coral reef science and publicize the issues. Ultimately, the first International Year of the Reef was held in 1997. Several other major initiatives were spawned including Bob pushing me to design a global monitoring program, which I named Reef Check, and our partner the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network organized by Clive. Rick was one of the key Advisory Board members who helped me to refine the Reef Check monitoring protocol that we now use in over 90 countries/territories around the world (and that was the model for the California version)

Rick made too many important scientific discoveries to detail here. Perhaps the most well known is his study of the reefs of the entire Hawaiian Island archipelago. He determined that the chain was like a conveyor belt, with new islands being formed over a hot spot in the earth’s crust offshore of the Big Island in the southeast, and old islands far to the northwest, slowly sinking and passing back under the earth’s crust. He named Darwin Point (29° N) as the location where coral reefs could no longer form as they submerged and growth could not keep up with the rate at which they were sinking.

Few coral reef scientists have had as diverse a career as Ricky Grigg. His teaching and scientific contributions cover wave forecasting, coral ecology, environmental impact assessment, coral fisheries, the origin of the Hawaiian islands and paleoceanography of the Pacific. He lived out his dream of being a professional surfer and oceanographer. He was a true friend and will be greatly missed. Rick is survived by his wife Maria, daughters Romy, Raina, and Carol Allen, stepson Mark, stepdaughter Juliana and three grandsons.

Ginsburg, Robert N., ed. 1994. Proceedings of the Colloquium on Global Aspects of Coral Reefs, Health, Hazards and History. Atlantic Reef Committee, University of Miami, Miami Florida USA

Grigg, R.W. 1982. Darwin Point: A threshold for atoll formation Coral Reefs 1(1). pp 29-34.

Grigg, R.W. & D. Epp. 1989. Critical Depth for the Survival of Coral Islands: Effects on the Hawaiian Archipelago Science 243 (4891) pp. 638-641 DOI: 10.1126/science.243.4891.638

Grigg, R.W. 1998. Big Surf, Deep Dives and the Islands Editions Limited, PO Box 10150, Honolulu, HI, USA 179 pp.

Grigg, R.W. 2000 Coral Reef Evolution: short term instability versus evolutionary stasis Integrated Coastal Zone Management Dec. 2000: 65-68.

Grigg, R.W. 2001 Status of the black coral fishery in Hawaii, 1998. Pacific Science 55 291-299.