Dire Straits

Lately I’ve been pondering the need to push my photography to the next level; to get more unique shots by pushing myself farther out there.  I’ve been wanting to get some truly special shots and have been thinking about pushing myself to go out in more challenging, or even dangerous, conditions as a means to that end.

This past week I began to meet this goal: I went out to the beach two nights to shoot the sunset, and both nights I nearly bit it big time when I got swamped by rogue waves.

Click on through to hear how I survived and see the photos I came away with as a reward.

The first night was probably the more dangerous of the two.  I was trying to capture some very beautiful cascades of water that would run down the shelves of rock at Panther Beach in Santa Cruz.  Every time a large wave would crash, a flurry of whitewater would land on the rocks and begin to rush back down slope toward the sea, as you can see in this shot I took earlier in the week:

Waves Cascades

On this particular night, the prettiest part of the sunset was happening exactly opposite this view, so I carefully made my way to the other side of this mess.  Unfortunately for me, getting the composition I wanted meant standing on an algae-covered slope in the fallout zone of the crashing waves.  It was slicker than snot and tough to get where I wanted to go, but once I finally made it I thought I was home free, which was good because as you can see, that seething cauldron of ocean froth and rock is not something you’d want to fall into:


And I probably would have been home free too, if it weren’t for Murphy’s Law of the Ocean: “Just when you think you’re out of reach of the highest waves, along comes a mother.”  As I was getting my camera dialed in to finalize my composition and exposure, a massive wave came crashing onto the rocks, sending a knee-deep jet of foamy water my way, soaking me to the waist as it continued up the slope.  This wasn’t actually the problem though; my real troubles started when this water began to flow back down to the ocean, pulling me with it.   I tried to dig in, but I may as well have been standing on wet ice for all the traction I had.

I had a flash-forward to myself slipping, scraping, and screaming as I fell into the pounding surf.  The out-flowing water was just dragging me slowly, inexorably downward when all of a sudden my left foot nudged up against the tiniest little shelf of rock and stuck in place.  Phew!  With that little toe hold intact, I was able to ride out the rest of the surge.  And as soon as the wave was gone I said to myself: “Self, I’m getting the  @!&$! out of here!”  And I promptly skedaddled up to higher and drier ground.

Thankfully, there was a nearby crevice that was both beautiful and out of imminent danger.  So, soaked, shivering, and pumped full of adrenaline, I lined up and grabbed my favorite shot of the night:

The Crack!


But I suppose I must be a glutton for this type of punishment, because two nights later I was back at the same beach, with an even higher tide and more ferocious waves pounding the shore.  On this night I chose to shoot in a spot where a few weeks ago I’d seen the waves and the rocks combine in a very lovely embrace:


The waves were roaring and the sky held a possibility of greatness, but when I got to my chosen spot, I realized there was no way I could get to my desired vantage point because the waves were cresting over the rock I wanted to shoot from.  Getting up there would have meant climbing up a six foot wall, going headfirst into the oncoming waves.  I wasn’t feeling that brave/stupid, so I stuck to point much farther back where I was “safe” from the waves.

The waves coming down over the rocks were an incredible sight, so that’s what I pointed my camera at.  Every now and again a large wave would send some water lapping at my feet and towards the end of the evening I was thoroughly wet from the knees down, but since I was on level ground I wasn’t too worried about the water that was occasionally swirling about my ankles.

As the light started to fade, an absolute beauty of a wave shot over the rocks, creating a wonderfully silky counterpoint to the rocks’ jagged edges, which I managed to capture in my favorite photo from the evening:

Water, water everywhere

But, as many a photographer is wont to do, I decided to see if an even more perfect wave would bless me with its presence.  And well, you could say I got my wish.  The very next wave was a real monster: it came over the rocks with such vigor it completely obscured them:

The "perfect" wave coming over the rocks

I was so amazed by this that I failed to notice another part of this wave sneaking up on me from the right.  I saw it just as the three-foot wall of water slammed into me, drenching me from the chest down and nearly taking my camera out right then and there.  I managed to get a hand on my tripod just in time, but that didn’t stop the wave from soaking the camera and putting it on the fritz for about 15 minutes.

The funny thing is that I must have been convulsively squeezing the shutter release on the camera as I snatched at it because afterward, when things I dried out, I found the following images captured:

The wave just before impact

Prepare for impact!



Thankfully in this encounter I didn’t suffer anything worse than cold wet clothes and a camera that was crippled for 15 minutes.  I guess the moral of the story is getting out there and pushing yourself is good, just be prepared to get wet!

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