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.
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.
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.
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.
Source: nationalgeographic.com by Paul Nicklen