Teahupo’o (pronounced Tea-uh-oo-poh or “ch-oh-poe”) is literally at the end of the road on the south-west coast of the island of Tahiti in French Polynesia. It is a small fishing village with only one 7-11 type store and a few outdoor restaurants serving quintessential Tahitian food. The village, while beautiful in it’s rustic way, is not nearly as exotic as you might think. There are no white sandy beaches in Teahupo’o. The coastline consists of hard black stone and a giant coral reef. The village just happens to sit in front of one of the world’s greatest natural wonders – a wave so violent that it instills fear in the heart of every surfer who attempts to ride it. On a small day the wave, also named Teahupo’o, isn’t that alarming but when it rears up on a big swell it is a ferocious monster that only the brave and talented even dare to ride.
The wave breaks about one kilometer from shore out on the edge of a coral reef. While Teahupo’o is not the biggest wave in the world it is widely considered the heaviest, meaning that there is a larger volume of water cascading over the surfer than on any other wave in the world. The lip of the wave at Teahupo’o can be anywhere from a few feet thick to fifteen feet thick or more depending on the conditions—and that is just the lip of the wave. When Teahupo’o is in full rage the lip of the wave can snap your neck in a heartbeat. Add in the fact that the wave itself is moving with incredible velocity, has a very steep wave face and a wicked sharp coral reef, only a few feet under the water’s surface, right in front of it and you start to get an inkling of why this wave is considered “terrifying.” Surfer’s have literally had their faces ripped off on the reef. A few days after I left this year, top female big wave surfer Maya Gabiera was held down on the inside for six waves and nearly drowned. When she was rescued she had blood coming out of her ears, nose and eyes and she was foaming at the mouth. Have not doubt, this is a serious wave.
I arrived in Papeete late and went straight to Teahupo’o where I was set to stay with a local. Note that just finding a place to stay in Teahupo’o is difficult. A friend of a friend arranged for me to rent a small room from a gentleman named Alexis, whose house was right on the beach. And though I didn’t know it then he was also the best cook in the village. When I arrived there was no swell and hence there was no rush to get out to wave. Nonetheless, I spent those first few days swimming in the crystal clear water, checking emails and working on a new book. I did manage to kayak out to Teahupo’o a few days later just to check it out but there was very little going on. It was the calm before the storm. Talking with locals and checking Surfline.com I knew that some decent sized swells would come through while I was there. It was just a matter of waiting. Since I had made the journey, I spent every morning and evening shooting everything I could. The light at sunrise and sunset was unreal. As you can see on the next few pages, aside from the surfing images, there are some amazing flora and landscapes to document in Tahiti.
Tahiti is widely considered extremely exotic. The water is crystal clear, the mountains rise straight out of the ocean and are covered with thorny “manzanita” type bushes making them all but inaccessible and the coral reefs are healthy and filled with marine life. It is certainly a special place. But, sorry to say, it is also a giant tourist trap. As an island in the South Pacific I expected it to be expensive since everything has to be imported save for bananas, pearls and fish. But I was amazed at how over-the-top expensive it was. Paradise doesn’t come cheap.Nonetheless, the locals are incredibly open and accommodating. They seem to watch out for the obvious foreigners (so they don’t get into trouble)—and I was obviously a foreigner with my lily white skin, which stood out in stark contrast to the deep tans of the Tahitians.
A few days into my trip the swell started to rise. With the help of the Billabong crew, I made arrangements to get on a boat since the action happens so far off shore. For Teahupo’o most photographers shoot from a boat siting on the shoulder of the wave. When it is small, you will see several photographers shooting in the water, but when it gets big no one is in the water. The amazing thing about shooting at Teahupo’o is that you are literally fifty to a hundred feet away from the surfers and you are looking straight down the barrel of the wave. There are very few places where you can get this close to the action and not be in the water. For 90% of my surf shots I used a Nikon D700 or D300 and my 70-200mm f/2.8 VR zoom lens. Occasionally, if I wanted to get a tight shot, I would add the 1.4X teleconverter. I also occasionally shot with my 85mm PC-E (tilt/shift) lens and a 24-70mm f/2.8. Some of the other surfing photographers thought I was nuts to shoot with a manual focus tilt-shift lens but I managed to get several interesting images that were actually in focus.
Shooting big wave surfing in Tahiti sounds pretty stinking good I will admit and it was exciting to be sure. But the reality is you are on a boat going up and down like cork on the ocean all day. I had five days where I was sitting in a boat getting blasted by the sun for twelve straight hours. There were no bathroom breaks or lunch breaks. You got on the boat at 6 AM with everything you needed for the day, including a ton of sunscreen, and you headed out to the wave. At 6 PM you headed back to the marina in the fading light. Those were some very long days but that is just how it is—if you leave for even a few minutes you might miss the most amazing shot of your entire trip. That is surfing photography in a nutshell. It isn’t quite as glamorous as it sounds but it is quite the adventure.
My last day in Tahiti was slated to be the best and biggest waves of the entire trip. It was also the day before the Billabong Pro surfing competition was set to start. That morning right on cue the waves were bigger than anything I had seen on my entire trip and the light was fantastic. The waves that were rolling in were in the 6 to 8-foot range, which translates to 16 to 18-foot wave faces. Not only were the waves a decent size but they were also very clean and with clear skies above us it made for perfect shooting conditions. I remember Brian Bielmann and Peter “Joli” Wilson remarking on how they hadn’t seen conditions that good in at least three years at Teahupo’o. I can’t tell you how happy I was to see such magnificent waves and conditions. I got the best surfing shots of the entire trip that last day and all but one of the surfing images included in this article were shot on that last day.
One of the keys to shooting surfing is that you have to pay constant attention to what is going on, otherwise you will miss the shot. This is a bit harder than it sounds. After spending five 12-hour days on a boat shooting what amounts to the same shot over and over it is easy to lose concentration. It is also difficult to get an image that stands out from the thousands of other images. In all, I shot over 11,000 images in a span of nine days. As you might imagine, trying to edit that many images is a nightmare. I am still editing them if the truth be told. You basically shoot every wave that rolls by because you never know what is going to happen. The opening spread for this article was shot midway through the trip. It wasn’t a particularly big wave, though it certainly wasn’t small either. When I edited the images I kept coming back to that wave because it had a menacing look to it that really caught my eye. It is still one of my favorite images from the trip.
I had planned to leave the day the Billabong Pro contest started for two reasons: I had an adventure photography workshop that started the next day at the Maine Media Workshops and I was told that during the contest they only allowed “credentialed” photographers shooting for a magazine in the media boats. So it was with a little sadness that I saw on Surfline.com the day I left that a giant swell was rolling towards Teahupo’o. Seven days after I left, on August 27th, the biggest waves ever seen at Teahupo’o rolled in—and I missed it. It went down as one of the scariest days of surfing ever and the folks that towed into that monster surf showed some serious cajones. TransWORLD Surf magazine published one of Brian Bielmann’s photos, one he claimed was the best surfing shot he had ever taken in 25 years a surfing photographer, on their cover with the caption “Surfing or Suicide?: Dodging Death in Tahiti.” You can see that image and read all about it on the TransWorld website here. Kudos to Brian for risking his neck to get this shot. It is indeed an incredible image. While I missed the massive waves this time around I did have a marvelous time and managed to get some very nice images myself. My thanks to Brian and the crew at Billabong for all their help while I was out in Tahiti. To se more images from this shoot please check out the extended Tahupo’o web gallery on my website.