• May 27, 2014

Paul Nicklen: Swimming With Monsters

Paul Nicklen
Cristina Mittermeier

An assignment that calls for photographing surfers—from underwater—demands that a few survival techniques are learned first. After all, thousands of people, even experienced surfers, have drowned in the pounding surf of Hawaii’s coastline.

 Cristina Mittermeier duck-dives deep under a large wave to avoid getting tossed around by the immense energy generated by the ocean.  Makaha Beach, West Oahu, Hawaii

Cristina Mittermeier duck-dives deep under a large wave to avoid getting tossed around by the immense energy generated by the ocean. Makaha Beach, West Oahu, Hawaii

As an experienced ice diver with hundreds of immersions in challenging conditions, what surprised me most about swimming in the Hawaiian big waves was not the raw power of the water—water that crashes with enough force to toss you around helplessly, like a rag doll, limbs flailing, leaving you with your head spinning, disoriented, wondering which way is up. It was also not the fear of the jagged reef, waiting to shred you, only a few feet below the surface; or the real possibility of being taken “over the falls” and slammed on the bottom with such force, that broken bones and the likelihood of drowning become all too real. The most surprising thing was how incredibly beautiful and peaceful it is to dive under those big waves…if you first learn how to do it right. Looking up from underneath a wave is like looking through a moving painting—an undulating, shifting kaleidoscope of blue hues.

I admit that initially, the sounds and sights of those big waves were humbling and even scary but I knew I had to face them if I was to make powerful and striking images. Standing on the beach, staring at the large faces of the waves rise up on the reef and slam with such force that it actually made the ground shake, I couldn’t help but wonder just how to safely swim out into the surf to make beautiful, creative images that would help tell the story of the Hawaiian people and their connection to the sea. The thought of swimming into these waves made me feel nervous and humbled.

A surfer bails out of a huge Pipeline wave on the North Shore of Oahu,  avoiding a certain beating.
A surfer bails out of a huge Pipeline wave on the North Shore of Oahu, avoiding a certain beating.

Just when I was about to talk myself out of doing this assignment, I met a real Hawaiian legend and master waterman who taught me what I needed to know not just to survive, but to truly enjoy the power of the sea. My teacher, Brian Keaulana, a big wave surfing champion, Hollywood stunt actor and director, and the son of “Buffalo” Keaulana, a pure blood Hawaiian who to this day is considered by many to be the best body surfer in history and was the first lifeguard in Makaha, took me by the hand and patiently shared with me his love and passion for the sea.

Brian’s knowledge goes back to his childhood and years of tutelage by his father, whose most important lesson is not to fear the ocean, but to understand and respect it. Over a lifetime of being in the water, Brian has developed many techniques and innovations to save lives. He was the first to use a jet ski as a water safety tool; he developed an ocean risk-management program and underwater defense training that is taught to everyone, from the best surfers to Navy Seals, police and firefighters—and to every kid in his home beach of Makaha. Perhaps his biggest contribution is the expertise he shares, often for free, with lifeguards locally and worldwide. It is not an exaggeration to say that thanks to Brian, tens of thousands of lives have been saved.

Children are taught how to understand and enjoy the powerful surf on Oahu’s beaches from a very young age. Makaha Beach, Oahu.
Children are taught how to understand and enjoy the powerful surf on Oahu’s beaches from a very young age. Makaha Beach, West Oahu, Hawaii

As I watched Hawaiian parents toss their very young children, as young as two and three years old, into the waves at Makaha Beach, Brian talked to me patiently about how to read the currents, how to predict where the waves would break, how to understand the rip tide, and most importantly, how to use the power of the sea to my advantage. Conditions change day-to-day and hour-to-hour. Brian taught me that in Hawaii, it is not if, but when you will get-dragged out to sea by the powerful rip tides, so knowing how to rescue yourself is a matter of life and death. Knowledge is power and the most important lesson is to not panic.

On a day when the waves were particularly scary he asked, “How long can you hold your breath for? If every breaking wave lasts 10 seconds with 12 seconds in between and you can hold your breath for a whole minute, that means you can survive a set of two or three waves. Don’t panic, swim to the bottom, where the energy of the wave is less and look up for a place where light pierces the foam cloud. That is where you swim to the surface.”

His advice and his constant teachings proved incredibly useful on many, many occasions and as the weeks went by and my fitness and confidence levels increased, swimming out into the waves became a fun, spirit-lifting journey and I was finally able to concentrate on making pictures and not just surviving.

Ha’a Keaulana, daughter of waterman, Brian Keaulana and granddaughter of legendary surfer, Buffalo Keaulana, is herself an accomplished
Ha’a Keaulana, daughter of waterman, Brian Keaulana and granddaughter of legendary surfer, Buffalo Keaulana, is herself an accomplished “water woman”, bathing suit model, and photographer. She is truly at home in the blue waters of her home beach in Makaha.

In early winter, the big surf finally arrived at Makaha. These are the famous North waves that wrap around Oahu and rise up on the west side, sometimes as high as 40 feet. This is what we had been waiting for.

On the last week of the assignment I went down to the beach with Cristina. We looked at those big waves and smiled because we knew we were ready. What we didn’t know is that this would be a magical day for photography. We jumped in the water and noticed right away that the water was very clear. As local surfers and paddle boarders raced towards us, we duck-dived to the bottom and let the large waves dissipate their energy in a massive and beautiful foam cloud above us.

During one particularly large wave, I dove to the bottom and looked over my shoulder. There was Cristina in perfect position arched back, looking up at surface, counting the seconds, looking up for that window through the foam pile to get to the surface. I took the photograph to record a moment but it turned out to be one of my favorite images in the coverage. It showed both the beauty and the power of the sea.

The images speak for themselves and the lessons, which will last a lifetime and will serve us well on future assignments, are the real reward of this story.

Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier, his partner and assistant, spent several months photographing indigenous Hawaiian surf culture for an upcoming story in National Geographic magazine. Nicklen spoke to Proof previously about his experience getting to know the community, which you can read here. You can also hear about his passion for photography in his video interview, here.

There are 53 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Dr. Suhas Deotale
    June 30, 2014

    Awesome photography I love it.

  2. Nani
    June 30, 2014

    Awesome”_” I can`t stop looking at first one!!!!!

  3. kgomotso metsing
    June 25, 2014

    Wow! Thanks to the photographers, the pictures are wonderful

  4. arun kottur
    June 16, 2014

    simply beautiful

  5. Alberto Alves Junior
    June 13, 2014

    1º photo – How can they do it ?!?!?!?!?
    Awesome !

  6. Manida Blackwell
    June 13, 2014

    Only man can do such amazing thing

  7. Chloris
    June 12, 2014

    I love the beautiful pictures of near and faraway places. I need to add some of them to my bucket list.

  8. Irenea LapingTome
    June 10, 2014

    I want to become like her.

  9. chunzi wu
    June 9, 2014

    To understand and respect the nature, and to be understood and respected, is truly awesome! Very inspiring work!

  10. Eduard Müller
    June 8, 2014

    My deepest recognition to your art, techniques AND courage! The world needs you two to show its beauty and power so us humans recognize what we are on the verge of loosing.

  11. Nuno M.
    June 5, 2014

    Brilliant shots! The first one is spectacular!

  12. sky
    June 3, 2014


  13. olivia
    June 3, 2014

    amazing i just feel like im inside the photos. great job.

  14. Hugo González Chalela
    June 1, 2014


  15. Peter
    June 1, 2014


  16. suresh
    June 1, 2014

    super and amazing short

  17. Deveshan
    June 1, 2014

    these photos are breath taking wish i could see that for real

  18. özgür
    May 31, 2014

    wonderfulll. especially in the firs photo

  19. Jessica Mai
    May 31, 2014

    Amazing photos!! For anyone, like me, who love swimming, looking at these photos bring in a great feeling of leisure & happiness! Absolutely love them!!

  20. Siena Huang
    May 31, 2014

    wow, its all I got to say…super amazing shots within the experience I love the pics. Awesome ^_~

  21. Werner
    May 30, 2014

    suuuper nice pictures – Thanks for your work

  22. thad
    May 30, 2014

    1 picture?!?! That was over sold! I live in Maui, I got friends with better shots. Call them if you need more photos…..

  23. Bulent Erkan
    May 30, 2014

    It is like heaven

  24. Venkat
    May 30, 2014

    Awesomeeeeeee photos

  25. Belen B. Lacerna
    May 30, 2014

    so amazing !

  26. Celma
    May 30, 2014

    Amazing, Awesome pics

  27. wade
    May 30, 2014


  28. marcela bauer
    May 30, 2014

    Amazing! I wanna see more please.

  29. Farkas Egon
    May 30, 2014


  30. ricardiñho
    May 30, 2014

    Es hermoso lo que podemos observar de la creación, me gusto mucho la manera de como tomaron esas fotos tanto de las olas como desde el interior del mar donde podemos ver como las olas golpean en el mar.

  31. Nguyen M Hung
    May 30, 2014

    Very nice !!!!

  32. Richard Douglas
    May 30, 2014

    Perfect 🙂

  33. Amalia
    May 30, 2014


  34. Thessa
    May 30, 2014

    This is amazing. What a beautiful experience. Well written. Keep it up! More power to you.

  35. jenifferhomes
    May 30, 2014

    amazing photos!!!

  36. Imelda Rerung
    May 30, 2014

    Very nice shot! Love it

  37. Lex
    May 30, 2014

    Where are all the photos? This article was about the beauty of the photos taken under the waves. I only see one photo (the cover photo), even related to the article. I am very disappointed and would like to see said photos. Can you post them or kink me to them? !? Thanks.

  38. Shashi Shettar
    May 30, 2014

    Very nice photos.amazing..

  39. Nancy Holder
    May 29, 2014

    SO COOL!!!

  40. Kim
    May 29, 2014

    Amazing photos!! Hawaii is one of my favorite places to visit. You have captured it beautifully.

  41. kendall nielsen
    May 29, 2014

    That’s awsome

  42. seth
    May 28, 2014

    a story about taking pictures underneath waves with only one actual picture from under a wave? kinda lame…

  43. vijay sood
    May 28, 2014

    Awesome shots taken! They tell a story!

  44. Kate
    May 28, 2014


  45. cobix
    May 28, 2014

    amazing photos!!!

  46. Alicia Wolton
    May 28, 2014

    Love this guy! His “Bubble Jetting Emperors” in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year was mind-blowing! Keep up the good work Paul!

  47. eva
    May 28, 2014

    Nice pic congratulations

  48. Adrian Villiger
    May 28, 2014

    power and beauty in perfect harmony – what an amazing series of pictures – I just can say: I love this brilliant peace of work!

  49. Fredrick musa
    May 28, 2014

    Like see wave and shaking water magnatics oceans gravite

  50. Nicolas Armer
    May 27, 2014

    Amazing piece of work, Paul. I´m a photographer myself and you are and will always be one my true idols. You simply capture THE perfect moments. Keep up your amazing work!

  51. Carol Rushton
    May 27, 2014

    Loved this article!

  52. Michael Filippoff
    May 27, 2014

    Amazing imagery – your images took my breath away! 😉 I’ve experienced first-hand the immense power of Waimea Bay on a big day – the images captured it perfectly! OK, I have to breathe now – great stuff! 🙂

  53. Paul Lee
    May 27, 2014

    Amazing piece. I love swimming. I love the ocean but I haven’t been able to combine both into a synchronous activity. AND I have not been to Hawaii yet. This piece combined many of my dreams into one. Thank you so much.

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