Natural Wonders: Nazaré Waves

The unassuming seaside town of Nazaré in Portugal is home to the world’s biggest and most aggressive waves. The once sleepy village/resort of fishermen and fishmongers, which feared these waters that shipwrecked hundreds of vessels, now hosts thousands of visitors every year. They come from all around the world to watch expert surfers brave these Atlantic walls of water. 

Catching a giant wave in Nazaré. Photo: Americo Lopes/Shutterstock

Nazaré Canyon

The most notable cause of the size of these waves is the presence of Nazaré Canyon, the largest submarine canyon in Europe. This 230km stretch of sharp escarpments, gorges, and steep cliffs form a V-shape that focuses waves at its sharp end, off Nazaré. This submarine structure spreads out from there, gradually joining the 5,000m deep Iberian Abyssal Plain.

The topography confines internal tidal currents and refracts oncoming waves, causing them to double in size as they join — so-called constructive interference. The waves rise and break well away from the shoreline, so surfers don’t crash against the coastal rocks.

Despite the waves’ monstrous size and power, no surfer has yet died at Nazaré, though there have been a couple of close calls.

Imaging of Nazaré Canyon. Photo: Instituto Hidográfico


The North Canyon Project specializes in understanding Nazaré’s wave action. For surfers or the simply curious, webcams show the live sea state at Nazaré.

Swells and wave action

Some big waves come from storms brewing further out at sea. But Nazaré’s waves have a consistent westerly swell that originates in the North Atlantic. Prevailing winds here come from northwest or southwest. Swells traveling WNW create the best waves, up to 30m, thanks to constructive interference with the canyon. The biggest swells usually form from October to April, and the very largest typically come in February. Surfers consider the waves from WNW swells the highest quality because of their smooth tubes.

Watching the walls of water from the lighthouse. Photo: Americo Lopes/Shutterstock

Surf city

Locals have always surfed and bodyboarded on these waves. Foreigners started visiting Nazaré in the 1960s, and word spread. Lately, it has become the world’s premier big-wave surfing destination. Surfers need jetski tows to reach the right point on the wave before it starts to break.

In 2011, pro surfer Garrett McNamara surfed a 24m wave, a Guinness World Record. Then in 2018, Brazilian surfer Rodrigo Koxa broke that record on an incrementally greater 24.38m wave. Finally, in 2020, another Brazilian, Maya Gabeira, surfed 22.4m, the largest ever by a woman. Many others claim to have tackled higher waves, but these remain unconfirmed.

Nazaré in 2019. Photo: aleksey snezhinskij/Shutterstock