Eye of the Storm

Water photographer Christa Funk’s close-range imagery of the intense and the sublime.

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In 2012, Christa Funk was caught in a raging typhoon off the coast of Japan as a member of the bridge command and control team on a 378-foot ship named the US Coast Guard Cutter Rush. She was just 22 and had graduated from the Coast Guard Academy only four months prior. Stationed on the USCG vessel, which was based out of Sand Island at the mouth of Honolulu Harbor, she and the rest of the ship’s 180-person crew were on a 100-day environmental-protection patrol in partnership with several Asia-Pacific nations. Working as a deck-watch officer, Funk was responsible for all operations, navigation, and the safety of everyone on board during her shifts. Most days, the boat got from point A to point B smoothly. But at that moment, shit was kind of hitting the fan.

They were chasing an illegal high-seas drift-net fishing vessel when they were enveloped by the storm. Funk was on watch during the worst of it. She calmly gave orders under the direction of the chief of the boat while a thick, angry ocean tossed the two ships about like a cat playing with mice. Relief finally came about eight hours later, when the fishing boat started sinking, forcing it to navigate out of the typhoon, where Rush and her crew seized it. 

I remember seeing a photo of Mark Healey holding a new gun with a Flying Tigers–inspired spray and thinking, I want a shot of him on that board. Then, on February 10, 2016, they called off the Eddie because Waimea was too small in the morning and there wouldn’t be enough daylight to run the event once the forecasted swell showed up. When the swell finally arrived that afternoon, Mark paddled out with that board and the exact shot I’d hoped for happened.

While most young adults might store such an event in their trauma vaults for decades, Funk used the experience to prepare her for her current career as a water photo-
grapher, which, during pulses of northwest swell, involves capturing frontline action at the Banzai Pipeline.

“It gave me a lot of [insight] on how to react in stressful situations,” says Funk of her time in the USCG. “Some people act calmly and assertively and just go with the flow, but that was something I had to learn­—to just relax, take a deep breath, and react to what’s happening. If you’re calm, everything is still going to be screwed up, but you’re more likely to get it fixed. But if you’re panicking, you’re not going to change the outcome or make anything better. Just having that mindset helps when you’re having a bad situation in the water.”

Like any Pipeline habitué, Funk has dealt with several intense situations. There’s the time she got shoved into a hole in the reef, only to emerge with a torn wetsuit and a helmet covered in gouges. Or the time when, just minutes after Evan Geiselman was famously knocked unconscious inside a Pipe cavern in 2015, she and another photographer got caught inside by a set and collided underwater, where her comrade accidentally kicked her shoulder out of its socket. She looked down to find her swimming arm (as opposed to her camera arm) dangling next to her. As she took the next wave on the head, Funk’s shoulder got pushed back into place. She swam back out to shoot for another 10 minutes.

For the most part, however, Funk spends her time in the lineup at Pipe avoiding its razor-sharp bathymetry and generally returns to shore with a few spread- and cover-worthy shots slotted on her memory card. Like the one of Anthony Walsh flying through a Third Reef mutant, an image that won her a Platinum Award—the highest honor in the field—at the 2022 London Photography Awards, in addition to the praise of Pipe-shooting heavies. (Legendary lensman Zak Noyle called it the best shot he’s seen in years.)

This session started slow. All the right swell ingredients were there, but not coming together—lots of Third Reef wash-throughs. Anthony Walsh took off, lost his balance in the trough, then recovered right as the wave hit the shallowest part of the reef and mutated into that voluminous lip.
Flynn Novak was one of the first pro surfers I started working with regularly. Many years of shooting together went into making this image. His consistency in the air helped me understand how to read a surfer’s body language in relation to an approaching section.

Funk’s career path to becoming a full-time photographer hasn’t been a straight one. It was one of those “one thing led to another and now she’s shooting with some of the best tube riders in the world” progressions. But it did take a lot of hard work and ingrained bad-assery to get here.

Having grown up in Grand Junction, Colorado, Funk obviously wasn’t exposed to heaving Hawaiian tubes at a young age. Her passion for photography, however, began early. When she was in middle school, her computer teacher loaned her a 35 mm Canon EOS Elan II to experiment with. It was love at first click. Photoshop was up next on the learning list, as was scanning negatives into a computer. She took photography classes her freshman and sophomore years, and then became a photojournalist and editor for her high school newspaper. When she wasn’t snapping photos of random kids in the hallways, Funk was shooting sports games—trying to get as close as possible to the action.

“One of the things I really loved about sports photography was that if you’re shooting a football game or a soccer game, you’re down on the field, on the sidelines with the players,” she says. “They’re sweaty. It smells like grass. And that’s one of the parts I really like about water photography: When I’m shooting surfing in the water, I feel like I’m more involved in it.”

Funk eventually enrolled in the Coast Guard Academy, where her photography took a temporary back seat to her marine biology studies, two-a-day swim practices (Funk was a competitive swimmer beginning at age 7), and cadet training. In her free time, she shot while she could.

After graduating, she was stationed in Hawaii on the Cutter Rush. When she wasn’t chasing down ships in seething typhoons, she spent her time in the ocean­—swimming, bodysurfing, learning how to surf. Eventually, she started shooting friends from the beach at Sandy’s. When she finally saw a few helmeted heads in the channel at Pipe, bobbing around with their water housings, she knew instantly that was where she wanted to be.

Leah Dawson, down-carving at Rockies. Her surfing is so expressive, you never get the same frame twice.
Jake DiPaola, Pipeline. This wave was 30 years in the making for him. He’s my husband, but, despite that, I don’t think I’ve seen a moment of pure joy like this before or since.
Hank Gaskell puts so much ass into his turns—which is risky because he doesn’t have a lot of ass to spare.

In 2014, she approached a photographer by the name of Kenji Croman, who was sitting on the beach prepping for a swim. After initially asking for water housing recommendations, the chat led to Croman taking Funk under his wing and showing her the ropes of water photography at Sandy’s—and eventually Pipe.

Funk’s 15 years as a competitive long-distance swimmer and her natural knack for bodysurfing helped her acclimate quickly to what can be a liquid death trap for the uninitiated. The learning curve came in honing her eye and navigating the hierarchy among photographers in the channel. “It was just like, ‘Okay, I’m at the bottom of the pecking order,’” says Funk. “‘I’m going to go sit at the back.’ If there were a lot of guys out, I’d sit more in the channel, so initially I had faraway shots with helmets [from the other photographers] in them. But I kept going out consistently, and I’d go out when a lot of guys weren’t shooting so that I could move around more and have more freedom.”

The fact that she was often the only woman in the lineup never fazed her, considering she was accustomed to working in an environment where most of her colleagues were men. “I remember during the first contest I photographed, I tracked and moved my body with a surfer, and I moved in front of Erik Ippel,” says Funk. “He was like, ‘Hey, girl! Get back here! You can’t do that. You can’t drift in front of my lens.’ That was a learning moment for me. I was glad he yelled at me. Ippel treated me like everyone else who was shooting and didn’t cut me any slack for being a woman in the lineup, and that was refreshing.” 

Pedro Calado, Peahi. During El Niño 2016, it felt like a giant, perfect swell was hitting Jaws weekly. This was one of the first times I shot there and is still the best I’ve seen it. Going left at Jaws is risky. If you survive the monster chasing you, the wave tapers off into a deep-water channel that is usually full of tiger sharks.
Thomas Van Melum always sits deep at Pipeline—more toward the pack of surfers than the group of bodysurfers. When I showed him this photo, he said, “Man, sometimes the best photos result from the worst beatings.” Thankfully he didn’t get hurt on this wave, but the end of it wasn’t pleasant for him despite the takeoff looking like absolute perfection. From personal experience, getting worked at Pipeline feels like a car crash: quick and violent.

In 2017, Funk officially traded in her navy blue USCG uniform to pursue photography full-time. She’s since worked her way up the hierarchy, learned which times of day the light best reflects off the water at Pipe, and continues to train so that she can handle any conditions the ferocious North Shore beast throws at her. 

When she’s not shooting, Funk wakes at 5 a.m. every day to lift weights for an hour, then does some sort of cardio, be it running, biking, or swimming. And when she is shooting, she has another routine she likes to run through, especially the night before a large northwest swell is forecasted to hit the North Shore. “I’ll get my camera set up, clear the memory card, make sure I have a whole battery and that my camera settings are good to go. That way if I get grom-frothy in the morning, I won’t forget anything,” says Funk, laughing at herself.

While explaining her regimen, she sounds more like a wave-obsessed teenager than ex-military. (However “grom-frothy” is technically defined, Funk feels like the epitome of it.) “I’ll head to the beach for first light to start watching the waves,” she says. “All it takes for me is one barrel and I’m like, ‘Screw safety, I’m going!’ I have to rein it in and make a plan, because I’ll just get so excited. If I see one barrel spit, I’ll be like, ‘Oh, it’s good!’”

Paige Alms, nice and windy at Peahi. Even though this airdrop lasted only a split second, it felt like time stopped and she was hanging in that lip forever—which was nice, because airdrops are easy to mistime. Women’s big-wave surfing has taken quantum leaps in the past two years. Even at the speed it’s progressing, Paige remains a standout performer among the women who are on the leading edge.
Two Pipe legends, one wave. Derek Ho is pulling a typical younger-sibling move here. You can feel that loving, familial frustration in Michael’s facial expression as he looks up at his brother burning him. I miss seeing Uncle Derek out surfing. Everybody does. I would bump into him everywhere, and he was always so encouraging to me in both photography and surfing. He’d even cheer me into waves. 

“I’ve never seen anyone log more water time than Christa in the stretch of a single month during a northwest swell at Pipeline,” says fellow photographer Ryan Craig. “If the Da Hui [Backdoor] Shootout is on, she’ll swim for 12 hours straight, hiding little goody bars and sunscreen in her wetsuit so that she doesn’t need to swim back to shore. Some days can be daunting before you swim out, watching large swell lines cap outside on Second Reef and whitewater as far as the eye can see. Jumping in on the shoreline at Pipe during those conditions is a guarantee for getting swept down the beach and having a long, difficult journey to the lineup. It’s intimidating and a discouraging factor for many photographers. I’ve watched Christa be the first person to swim out in conditions like those on numerous mornings, and that normally sets in motion other people trying to make it out.”

One of Funk’s favorite photos of Pipe is a shot she took of Jake DiPaola, her husband, before they started dating—an image that shows her ability to capture emotions at close range. “It was a late drop,” she says. “He barely got under the lip, and I lost sight of him because there was so much spray. It spit once. I didn’t see him come out with that. It spit again, and the shot is of him flying out of the barrel, soul-arched in the second spit, yelling at the sky. It just looks like pure ecstasy.”

She plans on capturing more shots like that one, using her critical positioning and her ability to emphasize the North Shore’s dynamic lighting to create intense, close-range windows into some of the most jaw-dropping rides of the year.

The subject. Photo by Brown Cannon III.

[Feature Image Caption: Keito Matsuoka, Da Hui Backdoor Shootout, January 2019. In the heat prior to this one, Keito caught what would eventually win him Surfline’s Wave of the Winter. Flush with all that confidence, he went on an absolute tear the rest of the day and got a third-place finish. Watching from the channel, I was left speechless when the light hit that lip as it flared out over him.]