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.
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.
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.
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.
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.