Is the Ocean’s Chemistry Keeping Us Healthy?

Joel Shumacher
Bruddah Cliff, in his non-aquatic element. Photo: Joel Schumacher

Two pumps, a flawless pirouette, and a hair flip to accent the kickout. Who the hell is that?

“That’s Bruddah Cliff,” a friend tells me. “He’s a PhD student here, from Hawaii.”

This sums up my initial encounter of Cliff Kapono, the surfer. I was a University of California San Diego sophomore at the time, and he was an aspiring chemist. But I didn’t give a shit about his lofty science aspirations, because the Craig Anderson surf-alike just stomped a squeaky frontside rev right in my face. I was impressed.

Over time I came to know Cliff, the person. He’s quiet, humble, respectful, and deeply passionate. Cliff is the type of guy that will give a stranger a good wave, just because. The type of guy who chooses to walk down the hill to Blacks, even when someone offers him a ride. The type of guy that would lose sleep over someone else’s hardship. Whatever the opposite of entitled and rude are, that’s Cliff.

Earlier today I met Cliff, the chemist. He was more matter-of-fact than his usual airy self, but no less invigorated. I heard that he was going to study surfers’ poop from around the globe, and I wanted to learn more. Where you going? What are you doing? And most importantly, why?

His answers not only surprised me, they also incited a new way of thinking about the oceans and our bodies. I hope they do the same for you.

Haunni KanePhotography, like science, takes serious concentration. Cliff ruminates over the perfect composition. Photo: Haunni Kane

Surfing: Hey Cliff! First off, how old are you and where are you from?
Cliff: I’m 29 and from Hilo, Hawaii

S: And you’re a science guy, right.. what are your credentials?
C: I am a PhD student at UCSD, currently in my last year of studying chemistry. I also study at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, and I’m a lifetime surfer.

S: I just watched your video and it looks like you’re planning a really big trip this year based on your research, can you tell me more about that?
C:  A couple years ago our lab published a study that discovered exactly which molecules are found on human skin. We were able to use different techniques to see molecules like caffeine, different kinds of soap, nail polish, and we can see it all on the chemical level. With my project, I’m using the same type of analysis but specifically on surfers. We believe surfers have a very unique chemical makeup on their skin and in their guts, as well as a unique bacterial community that lives on top of them. So we’re traveling around the world trying to differentiate surfers from different regions based upon what molecules and bacteria are discovered on or in their bodies.

S: So your theory is based around the idea that the ocean provides surfers with unique bacteria and molecules?
C: Yes. There are tens of millions of different types of bacteria in a single liter of ocean water. We are constantly surrounded by these organisms, obviously externally, but we also inadvertently get water inside of us through our mouths, noses, ears, etc. We believe that surfers are so immersed in the ocean environment that they literally have a different microbial profile than any random person walking down the street.

S: Are these extra particles good or bad for our health?
C: By and large, we can argue that surfers aren’t getting any more sick than the general population, despite the fact that we’re exposed to more diseases and bacteria from the ocean. So if we’re getting more exposure to these pathogens but not getting sick, it would make sense that oceanic organisms are keeping us healthy in some way.

S: Information like that would likely change the way people view the natural world. Are you hoping this will have an effect on the way people treat our oceans and the environment in general?
C: I think it could be monumental in terms of people’s understanding of the ocean’s importance. Humans are so often concerned with the impact they’re having on the environment – whether its with CO2 emissions or polluting waterways – but in reality we should be thinking about it from the opposite angle. When people realize that their own recreational environment — the ocean — has a major effect on their health, they will become more motivated to keep the ocean clean for the sake of their own well-being.

Joel Shumacher1Perhaps the most valuable Q-tips in human history. Ear wax be damned. Photo: Joel Schmaucher

S: So you were originally planning on doing your testing in the general San Diego region, but you were able to secure funding for a project with significantly more range. Can you tell me about that?
C: Originally we were just trying to do local surfers as a pilot study, but under the mentorship of Pieter Dorrestein, we applied for a grant through the Global Health Initiative here at UCSD. Through that, we have the opportunity to do it way bigger, so it has become a truly global surf project. We’re starting our journey in Cornwall, England with the European Center for Environment and Human at Exeter School of Medicine, and we will travel to Ireland, the Basque country, and Morocco from there. Once we sample surfers in Europe and Africa, we’ll go to the west coast of the U.S., Hawaii, South America, and Indonesia. All of this will take place between September 2016 and June 2017.

S: Are you expecting to find significantly different bacteria and molecules in all the regions?
C: I would expect to see differences, for sure. A lot of the molecules and bacteria we’ve found so far have been  behavior-based, meaning they come from the type of sunscreen you use, the type of soap you use, etc. So whether it’s the ocean itself or the behavior of the separate surf communities, I am definitely expecting there to be marked differences from region to region.

S: Are you testing non-surfers in each region you visit to act as a control group?
C: There has been enough research done already to verify that surfers and non-surfers have different chemical makeups, and because we are limited to a certain number of test subjects, we are pouring most of our resources into the surfers of each region, not the laypeople.

S: How exactly does the testing work?
C: We take cotton swab samples from different parts of their bodies, including hands, feet, ears, nose, eyes, mouth, chest, navel, and their surfboard. The last swab is on the surfers’ fecal matter, but they handle that one behind closed doors [laughs]. That one is important because what’s going on in your gut has a direct effect on your thinking and behavior and overall health, so we want to see how that varies across the regions as well. Once we have all those swabs, we put them into a solution, then we take that and inject it into two instruments – a gene sequencer and a mass spectrometer. The gene sequencer looks at bacteria, the mass spectrometer looks at molecules.

S: Are you swabbing people when they’re still dripping wet, or can you swab a surfer at any time because their actual chemistry has changed?
C: If we had unlimited resources we would swab surfers before and after a session, but because we’re limited, we’re only going to swab people after they’ve surfed. They don’t have to be wet though, it can be anytime within two hours of their session. They also fill out a survey that inquires about their age, weight, height, all the normal medical questions, plus questions like what type of sunscreen do you use, how frequently do you visit this beach, in order to get the most accurate data possible. We will then use supercomputers to help find trends in the data, which will give us more insight into the results of our research.

S: One last thing… I couldn’t help but notice that most of the places you named happen to have great waves. Will you be surfing a lot on this research trip?
C: [Smiles] Well yeah that’s the best way to do recruiting! I’ll be the one collecting all the samples for this project, and I figured what better time to do the sampling than when the waves are pumping? I’d love to meet the locals in their environment, watch them ride some great waves, and maybe I can get one or two on the side [laughs].

Jake Marote
This is what “recruiting” looks like when you’re Cliff Kapono. Photo: Jake Marote

Through UCSD’s Global Health Initiative, Cliff was able to raise enough money to fund a bare-bones version of this trip. However, the Hawaiian wants everyone to experience his quest for knowledge, so he is currently seeking further funding to help create a webisode series about his travels and studies. If you’d like to see something like that, check out his website or donate directly to American Gut.