Smart Phin, a fin that measures the salinity, acidity, and temperature of the water

Hold a line and help science at the same time. Photo: Smart Phin

– Originally posted on The Intertia – 

Surfers have a larger connection to the ocean than a lot of other people. We’ve got a vested interest in keeping it pristine. No one wants to surf in sludge, and really, it’s just so damn pretty. It’d be nice to keep it that way. And as it stands right now, we’re not exactly doing a bang up job of it.

So that’s why it’s not all that surprising that a surfer named Benjamin Thompson created something that might help someone do something about the gigantic mess we’ve made. It’s called Smart Phin, and it’s a fin (with no P) that measures the salinity, acidity, and temperature of the water, giving researchers valuable information on the impact of climate change over time. According to Thompson, researchers have struggled with collecting information near the shore, but surfers spend more time there than anyone else. “They’re in the most critical, hostile zone, they’re doing it willingly, and they’re doing it for free,” Thompson told Wired. “We’re chopping off a whole section of the cost of research, and that could be a real paradigm shift in the way data is collected.” And the best part about the Smart Phin? All you have to do is surf.

For almost two years, Thompson has been working on the fin, and just a few months ago, his hard work showed the first glimmer of paying off. He was selected to compete against 18 other teams for the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE – and a $2 million purse.

Now Thompson’s company, Board Formula, is embarking on a journey of proof: showing the world that his device can go through the wringer and still function how it’s supposed to. And if it works, surfers might just become a whole community of scientists, testing the waters for science every time they paddle out.

According to the National Ocean Service, more than 95% of the world’s oceans remain unexplored. Paul Bunje, the Director of Oceans at the XPRIZE Foundation, thinks he knows why. “You put anything in the ocean, and it gets pounded to death, critters grow on them, the temperature changes, and ions corode the metal,” he told Wired. “Stick something in the ocean, and it wants to get destroyed very quickly.”

The fins collect data that researchers have found difficult to obtain.

Like many inventions, Thompson’s little gadget didn’t start off intended to do what it does now. He began building a sensor that showed how much surfboards flex in the water, along with other basic information. “The intention was to collect as much information as possible on surfboards,” he said, “so I’d be able to say: ‘See? You should pay me to engineer things.’”

What happened next is a bit of a fairytale. Andy Stern of the the Lost Bird Project reached out to Thompson after seeing his design. But they wanted it for different purposes: monitoring the ocean’s near shore changes. Lost Bird Project is now Smart Phin’s backer, and once the fins reach a commercial stage, they’ll have distribution rights.

Thompson’s eventual plan is to sell the fins in surf shops, but keep the data open source. That way, developers can design apps for consumers. “Ultimately, it comes down to making surfers stakeholders, making them part of the process,” he explained to Wired. “We’re saying: ‘Here’s the information. You’re part of collecting it, and you have the capacity to make a difference in people’s relationship to the ocean.’”