The Eye of the Hunter

Derek Dunfee’s evolution from big-wave surfing to big-wave photography.
Photo by Frank Quirarte

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It’s June 8, 2012. A remarkably large, long-range swell event is unloading over the Fijian reef pass called Cloudbreak, a short boat ride from the island of Tavarua. It’s Code Red, as they say. The sea is massive, and it’s unusually clean for its size. A World Championship Tour event is in the middle of its waiting period. The contest’s director says try, and two heats take to the water as the surf grows larger. A knee is twisted in ways a knee is not meant to twist. The surf grows larger still. The contest is called off for the day. It’s too big, too heavy, too mean. 

As the event waves its white flag, an array of large surfboards are set onto the surface of the water. Their owners quickly join them, diving over the sides of skiffs. A couple dozen in total, they are some of the most accomplished big-wave surfers on the planet. They’re here precisely because it’s too big, too heavy, too mean. Derek Dunfee is among them. 

“The hype was out of control,” says Dunfee. “But it was warranted. There was a rare energy in the ocean. There was a feeling that it was going to be one of the best days of big-wave surfing ever.”

Dunfee is 29 years old as he claws his way toward the lineup. Broad-shouldered and wiry, he is at the peak of his big-wave powers, that nexus of experience and physical capability. 

He doesn’t wait long before taking off on a wave from its shoulder, something of a warmup to get acclimated. On the way back out, he stops near the boats to calm his adrenaline and catch his breath. The sounds of whistles, shouts, and cranking motors cut through the air. A wave that’s bigger and heavier and meaner than anything else that’s come through that morning tears over the horizon. The boats and jet skis buzz off. Dunfee is left alone as the wave rumbles toward him. He tries to scramble deeper into the channel, but the wave is moving too fast.

The wave’s lip cracks down on Dunfee’s head. Everything goes black. He’s pulled to the surface by his safety vest and vomits as he comes to consciousness. Then he’s hit by another wave. Underwater, he doesn’t know which way is up. He doesn’t even know where he is. He’s close to drowning before he washes into the calm reprieve of deeper water. His trunks have been ripped off his body and are knotted around his leash. He vomits again. Too dizzy and nauseous to get on his board, Dunfee lies on his back and stares up at the sky.

A ski eventually pulls up. Dunfee drags himself on to the rescue sled. But he’s too weak to handle the speed and lets go, sliding back into the ocean. The ski keeps going, and Dunfee is forced to paddle back out. He’s exhausted and feels ill by the time he throws himself back into the boat. 

This isn’t the first time Dunfee’s found himself in heavy-water trouble. There’d been two-wave hold-downs at Maverick’s and riptide suckouts into open ocean without a board at Puerto Escondido. At Cloudbreak, years before, he’d left strips of his face on the shallow inside section on one occasion. On another, he snapped his leg after a tube clamped shut on his back.

But there in the bottom of that boat, it’s different. 

“It was purgatory,” says Dunfee, “like being stuck between a dream and being awake. Just a fog. I saw spots and stars. My ears were ringing. But the scariest thing was not knowing what was wrong with me.”

Dunfee is severely concussed. His brain is shaken and battered and bruised. It’s a life-changing injury.

The day goes on and the hype delivers. The surf jumps as morning becomes afternoon. Dave Wassel, Reef McIntosh, and a host of others ride some of the most memorable waves ever. Mark Healey is forced to rip his leash and dive under one of the biggest, heaviest, meanest waves to ever pass through the South Pacific. 

Dunfee watches on, punch-drunk in paradise, suddenly made a bystander to the very thing he’s spent his life chasing. But at one point, he reaches into his bag and pulls out his camera. Between vomiting off the boat’s side and bouts of faintness, he takes photographs of it all as it unfolds. 

Though he doesn’t know it, he’s already found his next rabbit. 

Derek Dunfee grew up in La Jolla, California, an area blessed with a richness of solid waves unequaled anywhere else south of Point Conception. He was raised on a number of powerful reefs, most of them a short bike ride from his home. And those lineups, then and now, possess a certain set of values. It’s a fiercely guarded region, where hierarchy and respect are drilled into the young. The waves and the attitude, coupled together, shaped Dunfee’s approach to surfing early on.

“There was something different about Derek as a kid,” says Stu Kenson, the south San Diego County board maker who has worked with Dunfee since the latter was a teenager. “He didn’t care about little waves or contests. He was maybe a little reckless, but he was serious about big waves. And he wanted to do it for the right reasons, even at a young age. It wasn’t about money or getting his picture taken. It was about pushing himself.”

Dunfee made his first pilgrimage to the North Shore of Oahu at 13, rooming in the original Volcom house at Rocky Point. Midway through his stay, he found himself on the house’s deck with Noah Johnson, watching a rising swell hit Sunset Beach.

“Noah wanted me to paddle out,” says Dunfee. “I came up with every excuse in the book, but he had every answer. Finally, I told him I didn’t have the right board. So he gave me one of his, and I had to go out. I got mowed down right away. Surprisingly, I wasn’t freaked out. I realized that I could get really worked and be fine. That was a life-changing lesson.”

At 15, Dunfee typed and printed a letter to Jon Roseman, La Jolla local and owner of the Tavarua Island Resort, asking for a job on the island. He walked around the corner, knocked on Roseman’s door, and handed it to him in person. It made an impression. When he turned 18, Dunfee was hired as a boatman. For the next seven years, he spent anywhere from three weeks to two months at a time on Tavarua, painting and sanding hulls, fixing motors, surveying conditions, and driving resort guests out to the waves of their lives at Cloudbreak. He got lots of his own, too. It was heavy-water trial by fire, a mixture of education and real-world experience.

One particular guest was Santa Cruz’s Zach Wormhoudt, on vacation ten days after picking up the 2004 XXL Paddle In Award for a wave at Maverick’s. The normally shy Dunfee peppered Wormhoudt with questions about Half Moon Bay. Wormhoudt invited Dunfee to come and see for himself, and they exchanged contact information. Six months later, on the first swell of the season, Dunfee was headed up the coast to give one of the world’s biggest waves a try. He’d just turned 21.

“It was too big and unruly to paddle,” says Wormhoudt of Dunfee’s first day at Maverick’s. “My brother and I took Derek out on a ski. He hung on the back for most of the day, taking everything in. He wanted to paddle, but I told him he wouldn’t get a wave if he didn’t tow. We whipped him into a big, bumpy one. He was nervous, but he made it. It was a rude introduction to Maverick’s, but he came back almost every time it got big after that.”

Lens-grab at Puerto Escondido, 2008. Dunfee’s heavy-water prowess includes waves both tall and wide. Photograph by Todd Glaser.

Dunfee developed a routine, chasing purple blobs from season to season, hemisphere to hemisphere. He spent his summers between stints on Tavarua and at Puerto Escondido. In the winter, he split time between the proving grounds of the North Shore and on back-and-forth runs between the boils at Maverick’s and Todos Santos.

“I tried not to put too much pressure on myself,” Dunfee says. “I never wanted to feel like I had to take off on a wave if I didn’t want to. At almost every spot, from Todos to Puerto to Pipeline, it took me a long time to actually start catching waves. I spent a lot of big days sitting in the lineup, watching. It was a slow progression. But once I did start catching waves, I felt comfortable in really heavy situations.”

On one level, his approach was born of logic and self-awareness in a pursuit with very real and serious consequences. On another, more subtly, it was a reflection of what he’d learned in the waves and lineups of home.

“Derek seemed to really mature through that period,” says Kenson. “He grew patient and developed a calculating focus. All he wanted to do was to catch the biggest waves that broke in any given year. And he was putting himself in the right places on the right days to do it.”

In patience and calculation, Dunfee found consistency. His wave count racked up and up and up. People took notice. 

“There’s a small circle of us at Maverick’s,” says Wormhoudt, “who’ve watched all the changes to the spot, from the wave to who’s surfing it. And we have a lot of respect for Derek. He spent time getting to know the wave, the area, and the people. He doesn’t fly in the morning of, wait for golden-hour light to get his picture taken, and then fly off to the next place the swell hits. He’s not loud, cocky, or aggressive. He’s almost invisible in the lineup until he’s on the wave of the day. And he’s out there to actually make waves. He’s not a ‘straight and inflate’ guy. It’s not about glory. He values the whole process of surfing big waves, down to hanging out in the parking lot on days we get skunked.”

In June of 2008, Dunfee took off on the wave at Cloudbreak that snapped his tibia and fibula and tore ligaments in his foot. Doctors told him he’d be out of the water for up to a year. Five and a half months later, on November 30, he threw himself down a 50-footer at Maverick’s with eight screws and a titanium plate in his leg and no feeling in his toes. For that effort, he won a XXL Paddle In Award of his own.

“Winning that award changed my life,” Dunfee says. “I received an incredible amount of support and encouragement. It made me confident that I was on the right path, that everything I was putting in was worth it. And it allowed me to focus solely on chasing big waves for the next few years. I was getting the best waves of my life in that period.”

Dunfee was moving up the short list of the most deeply embedded big-wave surfers alive. He took more trips to far-off places. He picked up other awards and nominations. There were magazine covers, profiles, spreads, and ads. Happy sponsors put real money in his pocket. He was invited to the Titans of Maverick’s contest, and got himself on the alternate list for the Eddie Aikau Invitational. There came a phone call from Pat Curren, offering to build Dunfee a hand-shaped big-wave board. And he was moving closer and closer to prime positioning in the lineups of the biggest waves on earth. 

Then, in early June of 2012, a low-pressure system started to spin in the Tasman Sea. Dunfee spent a few days watching as it squeezed north between Australia and New Zealand. When it finally closed in on Cloudbreak, Dunfee packed his bags and flew off toward the moment that would change his life.

Concussion symptoms may never emerge, disappear after a day, or last a lifetime. In terms of medical treatment, there aren’t a whole lot of options when it comes to fixing a busted brain. It can’t be stitched back together, popped back into place, or wrapped in a cast. The only way to deal with a severe concussion is to take it day by day, cross fingers, and wait and see. To make it even scarier, head injuries often get better before they get worse.

Past the point of no return on a Maverick’s double-up in 2008, riding a Pat Curren custom-shaped elephant gun. Photograph by Todd Glaser.

Dunfee felt fine as he flew home, certainly better than when he was lying on his back at the edge of the reef, disoriented and looking up at the tropical sky. But once back in La Jolla, a number of symptoms began to emerge. First came dizziness and nausea. Then a sensitivity to bright lights, loud noises, and changing weather. Dunfee says he didn’t suffer from depression, as is often the case, but his emotions and moods swung wildly from one extreme to the other. He definitely couldn’t surf. After a few weeks without improvement, he began to fear that he might lose his memory. 

“I wanted to be able to remember everything I’d done,” he says. “From the places I’ve been to the people I’ve met, in case it all slipped away. I’d always brought cameras with me when I traveled. I started with disposables, bought a few 35mm point-and-shoots, and then moved to digital. I even built my own water housing when I was rehabbing my leg. I’d shoot mostly after I surfed and on off days. But at the time, the photos were just for me.”

As he flipped through his photos, Dunfee realized he had something more than personal keepsakes. He had an insider’s look into modern big-wave surfing, complete with its players, places, and important moments. He organized that body of work into two printed zines, titled DEKKA (a nickname for Derek) Volume’s 1 and 2.

After four months, Dunfee’s symptoms began to subside. While his interest in photography had been piqued, he was still focused on surfing big waves. He made up for lost time, pushing himself at every swell. He got big ones at Maverick’s, Puerto, and Dungeons. He was rolling again.

Then he hit his head at Off The Wall. A few months later, he hit it again in the shorebreak at Windansea. The dizziness, nausea, and moodiness crept back in after each shake. Though the symptoms would eventually pass, Dunfee decided to permanently adjust his approach. 

“I knew I couldn’t keep surfing big waves forever,” he says. “Another severe concussion could leave my brain permanently damaged, and I don’t want to risk my long-term health. I’d gotten good feedback on my photos and my zines, so I committed myself to surfing less and shooting more.”

For the most part, it hasn’t been much of a change. Dunfee still follows his old hunting routine, chasing purple blobs. He still hops off the sides of boats, lines up on familiar boils, and waits for sets to come tearing over the horizon. He still puts himself under the ledge. Only as a photographer, he stops just short of dropping in. Instead, he opens the shutter of his camera. As soon as the image is captured, whether he’s on a surfboard or bobbing around in 50-foot seas with nothing but swim fins, he claws over the wave’s back or dives as deep below the surface as he can. Sometimes, he gets caught.

Tube set up at Dungeons, South Africa, 2013. Photograph by Ant Fox.

“I’ve watched him paddle out to Maverick’s from the beach dragging his camera,” says Wormhoudt. “He’ll take beatings the whole way out, and keep taking them all day to document what’s happening. He takes the same work ethic and commitment that he had when he rode big waves and uses it to photograph them. And as a big-wave surfer myself, his photos are an authentic representation of what it’s like to be out there.”

There are millions of people in the world who surf. But the overwhelming majority of them will never see a five-story wave up close, much less ride one. They will never understand how much power, energy, and speed waves that big possess. Nor will they ever know the mixture of adrenaline and fear that pulses through the body when those waves come bearing down from above. 

Dunfee’s photographs, however, bring the viewer into that arena to stare massive waves in the eye, all from the safety of the sofa. His work reveals an ocean and form of wave riding that feels almost foreign to what most surfers ever experience themselves. His big-wave photographs are intimate. Looming peaks, bottomed-out falls, and Class 6 impact zones are all right there, almost too close for comfort. His photos also answer the question that most of us have quietly asked ourselves at one point or another: “No, you wouldn’t go. Never ever.”

 “His photos give me that same cold sweat and those same butterflies in my stomach as when I’m out in the lineup,” says big-wave surfer Kai Lenny, whom Dunfee followed around the world on a year-long big-wave photography project. “I feel that fear. My heart starts racing. The emotion and the energy that comes with surfing big waves, he translates it into photography. He captures its weight.”

Photographing large surf poses a number of technical and logistical problems, for obvious reasons. Traditional options include telephoto lenses perched on high vantage points or far away in a boat, or shooting from above via helicopters or drones. But those methods and angles often misrepresent wave size and speed. By placing himself in the thick of it with a 50mm lens, the focal length that best reflects what the human eye sees, Dunfee provides a natural, voyeuristic look at big waves and big-wave surfing in a way that few others could even attempt. 

“Surf photography needed someone who has ridden and understands big waves to document them up close,” says photographer Todd Glaser. “Most photographers can’t get as close as Derek can. He’s spent almost 20 years studying the swells, topography, and winds that make these waves work. He has a personal history with the spots he shoots. There are very few people in the world who have that knowledge, are physically fit enough to get near those waves, and know how to work a camera.”

Dunfee is afforded uncommon access to not only the places he’s shooting, but also to the people riding them. He’s not just documenting the big-wave community. He’s a member of that community. That trust lends itself to photographing what goes down out of the water. Dunfee reveals a candidness to the often very serious composure of big-wave surfers in the moments before, after, and in between. 

“He’s out there with guys who have seen him paddle into 50-foot waves,” says Glaser, “and they’ve seen him swim in 50-foot waves. They know that he belongs out there and that he’s safe. And they’re comfortable around him out of the water, because he’s one of them. He’s able to reveal not only the subtleties of huge waves, but also the personalities of the surfers riding them.”

Still, even in documentation, the dangers of massive surf remain. Dunfee and Lenny both recall an incident at Jaws near the end of 2018, in which the former got caught inside of a 70-foot-plus faced wave as the latter was towed into it. As Lenny navigated a series of boulder-sized boils and chops on his way down, a flash of red at the top of the wave caught his eye. It was Dunfee’s board. 

“Derek was sitting inside the wave’s horseshoe with his camera,” says Lenny. “I was tripping that he was in that spot on a wave like that, getting the shot. He scratched over the thing at the last second. He can do that only because knows the wave so well. If he’d gotten caught, it would’ve been bad. He knew that, but he put himself there anyway. He might say he could get deeper than he does, but the only way would be tossing his camera aside and actually dropping into a wave.”

“It’d be easy to take a step back and say what he’s doing is crazy,” says Glaser, “but I’d say it’s the opposite. Derek’s vision of big-wave surfing comes from a big-wave surfer. His whole life has gone into making the images that he does.”

It’s July, 2019, and early in the afternoon at Windansea. It’s peak summer in California, the dog days. It’s hot, bright, and the air is still. Between fingers of rock, the sand is dotted with packs of teenagers and families. The surf is nearly flat, and there’s not a soul out at the reefs. But every so often, a small wave crashes over one of the boils a hundred yards outside.

Derek Dunfee stands at the bottom of the beach trail, a few yards to the right of the famous palm frond–covered Windansea Shack, with a pair of swim fins in one hand and a water housing in the other. It’s been over seven years since he had his brain shaken at Cloudbreak. It’s been four years since he’s suffered a concussion at all, and three years since he’s dealt with any symptoms. He’s still broad-shouldered and wiry. And though it might be different than he once imagined, he’s still in the prime of his big-wave hunting career at 36 years old. He knows it all could’ve been worse. He knows that he’s lucky.

“That concussion was a blessing,” he says. “Big-wave surfing doesn’t last forever, not for anybody. But I’m still in the water and I’m still pursuing big waves. When I was surfing big waves, I carried around a lot of anxiety, a constant sickness in my stomach. And I was selfish. I wanted every good wave that came through. Now, I’m literally focused on other people. I get to capture whatever happens, without any of the pressure.”

Occasionally, Dunfee will still have a go. He was nominated for an XXL award a few years ago for a giant barrel at Puerto Escondido, and he catches a few waves at Maverick’s each winter. He’s just more cautious now. He has to be. The risks aren’t worth it. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to not go.

“One of the hardest things about shooting is passing up good waves,” Dunfee says. “Like at Maverick’s, there’ll be mornings when it’s sunny with light offshore winds and a 50-footer comes right to me, with no one else around. I’ve worked my whole life to be in that spot for those waves on those days. To not catch them, it’s like fighting an instinct.”

Dunfee sits in the sand above the shorebreak. He checks the camera’s settings and gives the wingnuts that hold his housing together one last tighten. He then slips into his fins and walks backward into the ocean. Pushing the housing in front of him, he swims out slowly. There are no clean-up sets. It’s calm. The sun dips below the horizon. Dunfee disappears into the glare. A small wave forms off one of the boils. Silhouetted in its breaking face, he pushes his camera as deep into the wave as he can.

Through the Looking Glass

A practitioner’s perspective into modern big-wave surfing. 
Photographs by Derek Dunfee