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Warning Shots

Observational frames from a passport-stamp collector.

Light / Dark

I’ll never forget the random message I received from Derek Hynd almost two decades ago regarding a specific area I’d recently visited. It was direct and to the point: “If you take care, we may still have another 15 years or so left before this region finds itself under the pressure of the surf world at large…”

That Hynd was addressing me personally struck a chord. As an excited shooter in his mid-twenties looking to make a mark within the hierarchy of surf photography, I took his words as a straightforward warning to always remain sensitive in protecting the resources I’d been—and would be—fortunate enough to stumble upon. I had a responsibility, no doubt, in not blowing out the places I was traveling to and thus killing the bigger dream. 

So while I navigated the high and low roads of being a young and aspirational photographer in the time of Jeff Divine and Tom Servais, it was Hynd’s words that stayed with me whenever I eventually made it to where I wanted to go. As the years passed, my travel mode came to focus less on editorial and increasingly on personal experience. I came to see the benefit of a less-is-more approach to traveling companions, discreet lineups, and staying as far away from the masses as possible. 

Thankfully, as time has marched forward, a fair number of the go-to locations on my list have been spared from the growing surf population. Unfortunately, a few have been overrun.

Communal activities in the fading light, way south of the border.

Overall, I’d say I had a pretty good ride. I developed an intimate relationship with all things Chile. The early days in the Mentawais aboard the Pelagic were all-time moments. Tahiti’s outer islands and atolls proved an overflowing treasure chest of brilliance. The Caribbean offered an inspirational and surprising change of pace. Surfing Keramas for three years before it was unveiled to the world might have been the biggest coup of all. Then there was my ten-year affair with a lonely Oaxacan point while the rest of the region was hit by the surf-camp hype machine. 

Fast-forward to today: The world as we know it will never be the same. Just as video killed the radio star, the internet has ripped the Band-Aid off all things sacred and previously under wraps. 

It’s no surprise that Hynd’s premonitions regarding the rising pressures of global surf culture and its populace, coupled with the unforeseen forces of social media, have come to pass. So please forgive me as I wax nostalgic about a lifetime dedicated to searching for perfect waves, untrodden landscapes, and zero interference. I still try to carry that same under-the-radar ethos of preservation, which, in today’s braggadocious and socially connected universe, feels like more of an impossibility than the norm.

In reflecting on a few of the adventures I’ve had since Hynd set me correct, I’m pretty sure there won’t be another 20 years for us to keep things quiet. But, in revisiting, I’ve garnered a fresh perspective on my own inclination to showcasing these places. My reasoning? Wanting to set a positive course forward in terms of the conservation of our world’s interconnected cultural and environmental diversity.

The next two decades will surely be a reckoning. The beautiful waves of the world are under constant threat. Perhaps this paradigm shift of “sharing” might be the means to enlightening and activating others to protect what’s still left out there. Ultimately, that preservation supersedes any personal desire to keep good waves secret.

California

When it’s good everywhere else, it generally isn’t good at home. And when it sucks everywhere else, chances are it’s just the opposite out front. That’s the working scenario of surfing in Laguna, where one comes to adjust to the nuanced irregularity of conditions. On the days when we do get quality surf, the lineups are well maintained by a tight-knit group of familiar faces. Nate Zoller, seen above under a perilous hook in 2012, is a standout among them. He’s never one to miss a swell, and his fluency as a dedicated globetrotter bodes well for the town’s lineage of characters and traveling ambassadors. 

French Polynesia

For a number of years, I was fortunate to work directly with Pearl Resorts in Tahiti. The benefit of that relationship was exposure to well-guarded reef passes of the outer islands and the northern atolls of the Tuamotus. There’s really no comparison to the quality of surf in the South Pacific. This moment, from 2014, was the product of a weeklong massive groundswell running up against Bora Bora, where I was shooting a campaign for the resort. Each morning, I’d look out from my front porch and watch this mutant drainer slam across the reef with no takers in sight. Rideable? Who knows. But it sure as hell looked perfect. 

A little graphic color and texture from the Tuamotus. It’s the little observations we make when traveling that stand out at the end of the day, and when looking back years later. French Polynesia’s color palette is always one to impress, and it’s typically readily on display.

Water, sky, and sun coming together over the course of a week in 2011. Hans Hagen and I were floating about the Pacific, and for days on end this heaven-sent right peeled down the barren coral reef pass with only a handful of locals around. We charted the swell, established a plan, and executed the strike. Our reward? Ending up thousands of miles away from anywhere, a little bit lost, and rewarded with the goods.

Cuba

I’m not quite sure how I ended up in Cuba when it was still illegal to visit. It was 2007, and I was following a work detail out of Cancun. The next thing I knew, I was standing curbside at the airport in Havana with $1,500 in my hand and not a clue where to go or what to do. The situation sorted itself out rather quickly, thanks to a local taxi wrangler who offered me an entire apartment downtown. I set up a darkroom in the bathroom and, equipped with a William Littman 4×5 rangefinder, set out to document the city’s street life on Kodak Type 55 negative film. I’ve always believed the best advice is to just say “Fuck it” when having second thoughts. You have to step out of your comfort zone in order to grow.

While on location, I realized I needed a convincing reason for being in Cuba to avoid paying a $50,000 fine upon returning to the United States. I figured that if I operated under the guise of a traveling surf journalist working on a story, I just might be in the clear. That’s how I found myself connecting with Yaima Espinosa, creator of Las Cubanitas and one of the country’s first female surfers. I suffered a bit of shock and awe at the local surf community’s, as well as Yaima’s, commitment to what was then an outlawed activity. Truly one of my more non-scripted journeys over the years, Cuba proved vibrant in unexpected ways.

Chile

Life along the southern Chilean coast revolves around harvesting the region’s bountiful natural resources. The people live by customs and traditions that have been passed down through generations, mostly unchanged by modern technology. Be it harvesting the wilds of the Southern Ocean or cultivating the nutrient-rich soil, theirs is a humble life spent engaged with the land and the sea.

Chileans are notorious for partying hard. In fact, drinking in Chile can feel like a full-time sport. And no one plays it better than the Indigenous campesinos, who live deep on the southern coast. On Sundays in particular, there’s a good chance you’ll run into one of these characters, dressed to the nines, weaving his way about the backroads or felled over in a passed-out slumber. They’ve earned their right to get loose, though. Working hard on a truly rugged land has made them tough as nails and core to the bone.

On the morning of February 27, 2010, one of Chile’s most destructive earthquakes on record struck, and the 8.8 temblor caused an instant change in life for those living on the coast. A friend told me how he literally watched the resulting tsunami run north along the shore in those early morning hours, destroying everything in its path, except for many of the waves that still reel across the sculpted sandbars.

As picturesque a spot as you could imagine, it’s moments like this one here—in a place far away from home, where there is no interference from anyone or anything save for the sounds of a peeling pointbreak—that reminds me how fortunate we truly are as surfers. Seeking and finding a connection with nature, and living out a desire to exist amongst its power source, are what I think being a human is all about. That type of scenario is one that repeats itself every single day in places all over the world. In places well off the beaten track, perfect setups groom incessant swells with just a lucky few in attendance. 

Mexico

As the ocean turbine sends grinding swell along this primordial coast, Oaxaca’s series of points sculpts that energy into a parade of groomed sandbar perfection. Walking over the sand dunes to each of these flawless setups, one can’t help but be inspired by their natural order. When left to create without man’s intervention, Nature is perhaps the most talented craftsman of all.

It’s kind of hard for me to believe that we used to enjoy such carefree days at this bucket-list surf destination. Before The Search arrived and introduced Barra de la Cruz, seen above, to the world, days were actually pretty slow-paced affairs. And can you really blame them? The pointbreaks of southern Oaxaca can be very addictive. Erik “Frog” Nelsen, pictured below slicing it at another nearby point, has certainly taken his share of bites out of them. Frog and I have spent countless hours in the water at this much-lesser-known sandbar by ourselves, transfixed by the mechanical-like perfection and lack of a crowd even in today’s “broadcast it all and everywhere” era.