For big wave surfers, 20- to 30-foot peaks are standard fare. At Cortes Bank, the summit of an underwater mountain around 100 miles off the coast of San Diego in the the Pacific Ocean, waves can reach around 10 stories high — making it a highly coveted yet highly perilous spot to shred. 

A biodiversity hotspot thanks to its size and shape, which create an upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water, Cortes Bank hosts a range of sea life, from coral to sea stars. Per the Marine Conservation Institute, the structures that the coral form provide a habitat for 137 fish species, over 34 species of algae, and the endangered white abalone.  

It also draws larger animals like sea lions, elephant seals, and great white sharks. The presence of that last one, an apex predator, is just one hazard intrepid surfers face. As author Keith Heyer Meldahl writes in his book Surf, Sand, and Stone, the water is frigid, thick fog is common, and “treacherous currents” sweep the area.

Though it was reportedly first documented by members of the U.S. Navy in the 19th century, the area has only been on the surfing community’s radar since 1990, when wave-seekers Larry “Flame” Moore and Mike Castillo decided to fly a small plane to explore the area they’d heard rumors about from fishermen and scuba divers.


Per the book Ghost Wave: The Discovery of Cortes Bank and the Biggest Wave on Earth, an excerpt of which was published on Surfline, Moore, a surf photographer, spent over a decade attempting to document a session there, flying over the spot with Castillo at least 14 times. It wasn’t until 2001 that he and another friend, surfer Mike Parsons, opted to take advantage of hurricane-force winds and attempt to catch one of the massive waves they’d heard about. 

They were successful: Parsons caught a rogue, seemingly bottomless wave, 66-feet high on the face. It proved that the rumors were true, and that even higher peaks were possible. Cortes Bank was the real deal. 

As Meldahl put it, “The bravest and most adrenaline-addicted members of the big wave surfing community can’t resist this place.”

One of those brave — and perhaps adrenaline-addicted — members is Nic von Rupp, a big wave surfer from Portugal. 

“Cortes Bank,” von Rupp told Surfer. “That’s the dream. I used to play Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfer on my PlayStation, and Cortes Bank was the biggest wave in the whole game.”

These days, von Rupp is no longer just facing down waves on a gaming console. The pro athlete has ridden some of the most elusive crests out there — including what’s considered the biggest wave on Earth in Nazaré, Portugal. And in early 2022, he added Cortes Bank to his list of accomplishments. He was the first person to make it out there in 10 years, he said in an Instagram video chronicling the trip. 


“I decided this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the chance to go to Cortes Bank,” von Rupp shared with Surfer about the expedition. It was intense: He and his crew, including safety and camera teams, went out with a large fishing boat and 10 personal watercrafts. “I felt like I was going to war,” he added.

When they reached their destination, they were greeted with a gorgeous sunrise and a huge wave breaking. “It was as clean as it can be,” he said. “It was just like in the movies, just like in the magazines, just like in the video game.”

Last year, Justine Dupont from France became the most recent pro to conquer Cortes Bank, an achievement that helped earn her Ride of the Year and the title of 2023 Surfer of the Year at the Big Wave Challenge Awards. 

“I’ve always dreamt about surfing this wave but never really thought it would happen as it’s a big mission,” she told Surfer, adding: “It was a day I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”