Open your eyes. Look around. Process your surroundings.
What is the best next move?
There is a 10 ft wave moving towards you, building momentum and growing in size as it nears. You have seen this before when you were on your 9 ft flotation survival device, also called a surfboard, and you would use all of your strength to paddle towards the growing wave coming towards you. You would easily glide over the monstrous wave or in the worst case, it would begin to peel, and you would turtle roll as it crashes on you, using your board to take the blow and protect you. But now, you are on your own. No surfboard, just a 10-pound anchor of a camera inside a nearly indestructible and heavy camera housing.
You use your flippers to propel you towards the thing that looks like it is going to eat you whole. As you’re getting closer, you realize that getting over this thing is no longer an option. You see the lip of the wave form and although beautiful, you know it is exactly what is going to pull you in and drag your small, fragile body into the ultimate natural washing machine. It is so beautiful. You consider taking a shot of it, but no. Instead, you grab your last breath of air and try to push your body as deep as you possibly can and hope it is enough. As the waves power easily scoops you up and sends you into a whirlwind of directions under the water, you realize that it was definitely NOT deep enough. The power rips your camera housing out of your hand, which only adds one more danger for you – you now have to dodge the heavy device that is being tossed around as freely as you are while it is attached to you by a 3-foot strap. You feel the relentless pushes and pulls stop so you fight your way to the surface (or at least the direction you feel might be the surface) and you gasp for air as soon as you reach it. Just as you finish that delicious drink of air, you see the next wave right above your head and you are taken for yet another round in the ring. More tossing and pulling. How are you already out of air? You fight against the pushing and pulling this time to get to the surface as you know you do not have enough in your lungs to keep you going much longer. You reach the surface and are reunited with your camera, which is a relief as that is no longer an unknown threat that can surprise you with a blow to the face.
You emerge and see the other surfers charging out deeper into the ocean to get out of this blood bath that has become what was once the calm “out back” and so you do the same, though you know you are only able to move at half the speed as the surfers. Numerous more waves come and take you on the same ride as the ones before. As you look around, you see the plan has changed for everyone. Surfers are now riding into safety and using the waves to push themselves there. This is the new plan of survival. You let the waves take you now, trying to avoid the massive rocks protruding through the water. Finally, your body is forced into a hard, flat surface. Sand? You realize you are nearing the safe, stable shore. You have never felt so happy to stand up and feel the sand under your feet and you run with any energy you have left to escape the powerful, moody mother ocean. Once you are safely on the shore, you go into a fit of laughter. Is it genuine happiness at being alive? Is it the hilarity of how tiny, insignificant and powerless you are when at the mercy of the far greater ocean? Or is it the playback in your mind of how much of a lifeless, wet fish you just looked and felt like? Probably a combination of it all. The shared feelings of relief, exhaustion, and excitement are mutual in the air amongst all of the surfers washing up. Everyone has been worked and the set of all sets cleaned up the entire beach. One after another comes up to ask how you are doing and you get pats on the back and high fives (sorry Covid, near-death experiences allow for human touch this time) and your friends are stoked to see you still smiling.
This is a window into what shooting in the surf is like, the story of my first experience shooting short boarding in big waves. It is the most exhilarating, terrifying and rewarding activity I have ever done. I have been shooting in the water for roughly 6 months and every single time I go out, I learn something new and have a completely different experience. I am pushed physically, mentally and creatively when shooting in the water and I always feel incredibly proud of myself while also humbled by the power of the ocean. Surf photography may not be for everyone but for me it is the only thing that can give me such a strong flood of powerful emotions at once.Shooting in the surf makes me feel more alive than anything else and for that reason only, I would be willing to get tumbled in waves a hundred times. When you find something that makes you feel alive like this, don’t let it go – the fear is only temporary.