Author: Carlos Vargas
When situations don’t go as planned do you accept it and take the obvious way out or do you keep searching for the road less traveled? In my encounter with the biggest wave in California, I took a peek at the obvious path and decided to risk it all.
Over the past 2 years the North Pacific ocean has seen a significant amount of storm activity. When the weather conditions are right, the small fishermen town of Half Moon Bay in Northern California becomes a vortex of surfers, filmmakers, residents, and visitors searching to tap into the energy of mother nature. The wave known as Mavericks was first surfed in 1975 by a Half Moon Bay local; Now a proving ground for the elite of big wave surfers, it is often described as a slab reef, cold water, shark infested, raw, open ocean surf spot.
This particular storm in January was predicted to deliver waves anywhere from 15’ to 25’ feet with light offshore winds. It was no secret, surfers and photographers from all over the world were talking about Mavericks on social media. So I packed up my camera and my camping gear, a wetsuit and some snacks and drove six hours from Los Angeles to Half Moon Bay anticipating an epic swell.
My goal as a photographer is to build comfort in heavy surf while capturing the most artistic angles of a wave. When shooting in the ocean I try to use minimal camera gear while at the same time getting as close to the action as possible without getting in the way of the surfers.
The morning after I arrived to Half Moon Bay I woke up to a beautiful blue sky and a soft breeze that kept the air crisp. These were perfect conditions to photograph Mavericks from a boat with a telephoto lens. I got to the busy harbor and loaded the gear onto the boat that would take me to the lineup. To my dismay, the boat had mechanical issues leaving me stuck on land.
Out on the ocean the action had started, and desperate to get some shots I hiked to a vantage point known as Pillar Point to shoot from the bluff. Mavericks was breaking with such enormous energy into the reef that I could hear the waves exploding like lightning bolts all the way from where I was standing. The lineup was packed with at least 50 surfers and the boat traffic in the channel would resemble the energetic audience at a gladiators pit.
The swell was rising, the tide was dropping, and the wind stayed calmed. However I felt nowhere near the right spot to get the shot I had in mind. Unfortunately the wave breaks so far away from that point that getting a decent image would require at least a 600mm lens.
This was the decisive moment that would make or break my day. Still committed to my original goal of shooting from a boat I decide to risk not getting a single shot and walk back to the harbor to find another boat out to the lineup.
Nearly an hour went by and I started thinking about returning to L.A empty handed when a Half Moon Bay local showed up alone and ready to launch his jet ski. His partner going to Mavericks had canceled last-minute. This felt like my best and only opportunity to photograph the swell from the line up. I quickly put on my wetsuit and packed the camera into a dry bag. It was about a 10 minute ride to the heavily crowded line up.
The offshore breeze groomed the ocean conditions making it possible to shoot without a water housing. I shot from the back of the jet ski with a 5D Mark III and a 300mm lens.
Compared to the land agle, shooting from the channel created realism, dynamism, and a perspective that makes justice to Maverick’s reputation. As this photos show, taking my chances payed off that day.
Thank you, Tom Watson, for being a solid jet ski pilot and helping me achieve my personal goal.
Carlos Vargas is a director and producer of UHD television, unscripted adventure reality, and branded content. Carlos is also a surfer and adventurer: Growing up in Puerto Rico he developed a strong relationship with the ocean and the mountains. The outdoor adventure lifestyle sparked a passion for photography and storytelling at an early age. Carlos is currently based in Los Angeles, California. You can follow him on Instagram here.