Risk Perception

Risk Perception

The image above was shot during the 2010 Maverick’s Challenge where I worked as support and Photographer for K38 Rescue, who ran Event Ocean Safety and in process was in charge of training a cadre of local watermen to be a Rescue team. That local team was headed up by Vince Broglio. It was a big and perfect day. Possibly the biggest, best surf, ever paddled into for a competitive event.

The quote is something Shawn said in one of our project groups this week. And I immediately turned it into an Oceanlovers Blue Note. Blue Notes are wisdom gleaned from the Sea, basically. You can find them here on Oceanlovers’ site, and you should be able to right click grab them. They are meant to be shared.

I study risk. Have for a long time now. As someone with a background in high risk competitive sports as well as a depth of Ocean experience, if I were not risk aware, I would not be sitting here typing on a Saturday morning. But this week has prompted me to want to expound a little on Risk Perception. You see, Risk is always there. But it is our understanding and awareness of it which allows us to potentially manage some of that potential threat to our own and other’s life and limb, with our choices and actions, and hopefully, to come away unscathed.

This is a very complex and layered subject. I have written a little bit about Shawn and I’s affiliation and relationship here in this regard in Peaking in Seconds and Feet. The people I work with via K38 Rescue and in my other various affiliations, are world leaders in various aspects of emergency response. We all support each other, mentor, and yes hold ourselves accountable, as members of a large Community. Accountability is everything when managing risk.

Understanding is what we strive for, as responsibility for our own safety and that of our subjects as professional imagers, needs to underpin our life. Without that you would see a pattern develop in and around your work which would include injuries-damage  to yourself, equipment and subjects. So we study to learn the risk, safeguard ourselves, and push for a more pleasant experience and to set an appropriate example for others.

Let me underscore something, speaking of accountability. I have never been hurt filming or shooting. With the exception of smacking Sean Tully, one of my long term collaborators in the head, when a lip grabbed an overly large waterhousing, I have never hurt or lost anyone. (I repaired Sean’s scalp wound. Being able to do that is another story) So in almost 15 years of filming all over the world, that means no bad cuts, head injuries, sprained or broken anything. Zilch. Nada. Zip.

I believe it is possible for anyone to have that track record. But Risk Perception, it is multi-layered, and I want to share one of the layers here.

This week has been full of Kite board filming and stills shooting. I consider this subject and utilizing a water POV to be exceptionally high risk for a number of reasons. A photographer could suffer instantaneous death from a variety of means. I am not going to go into the details, but this week it went smoothly. Here is one of many images collected and a part of a film I am developing. And yes, another Blue Note.

Blue Note: Kite

I always watch the Ocean. My connection to it is so involved and intimate, I am not going to endeavor to explain the relationship in a technical manner. But I will share some precepts.

My wife has been surprised to see the large volume of very high bar water work I have generated this Summer along our coast. That is unusual, as it is rare for the large combination of variables I require to attain my image quality bar, to happen in Summer. She sees the commitment and struggle, some of it anyway, as we talk about managing the vast array of details which comprise a career. Nevertheless, she has been remarking on what has wandered in the pixel door lately.

Two days ago things lined up for a special evening. I had been watching a break for some time now. Studied it, learned the parameters of tide swell, current, conditions etc. I thought it had potential to provide for some great work. But I had not yet swum it.  Eventually understanding risk comes down to going. You must go and challenge your understanding at some point, in order to convert the experience into knowledge.

Driving down Coast on a hot, blue, placid day I was inexplicably unsettled inside. When I got to the break I had thought we would be filming at, perfect little shoulder to head high peaks threw out in hollow top lit blue cylinders, in an idyllic California-esque  beach day. Woo hoo! But inside was a voice.

Looking down coast at that spot I had been watching, I saw a few waves break and recognized that today was likely as good a day as ever to swim the place. Lars Rathje arrived, who is one of my close collaborators. His younger brother Hans was on the way. With increasing excitement we watched a few well overhead sets roll through and I carefully loaded my SPL waterhousing, placing the Canon 5DM2 with wide angle zoom into the case, setting everything and then buttoning up and prepping the port. It is a routine and process which I have done literally thousands of times.

I tugged my wetsuit on, grabbed my housing and fins and we picked our way down the cliff to a narrowing sandy beach strewn with the odd big rock. Neither of us was 100 percent on what the bottom looked like. We suspected it would be soft sand as we had seen the break shifting a bit over the course of a year, and that shift usually indicates sandbar movement related to littoral flow.

As we got to the water’s edge I turned to Lars and said this on the most perfect beautiful risk absent day one could ever imagine. “Pay close attention out here today. Really close attention. There is something not right about this.

And we swum out. Below are the first and last frames I shot that night. Easy, perfect, brilliant, fun. Right?

First Frame

Last Frame

Here is what happened.

The lineup features two peaks, one a left and one primarily a right. On high tide (tide was filling in) a side wave pushes across the lineup creating an explosive and dramatic backwash condition. Part of what we were there to experience was the water morph. The first wave Lars barely got into it via the back door and as the side wave hit it kicked open. That dry hair shot above was the first one of the evening .

We had to play everything very close due to the combination of conditions, so frequently we were in touching distance. That is not so unusual for water work. I actually call this type of shooting “contact work” as one is generally within touching distance when one shoots. You endeavor to have the ocean and your approach create a near miss scenario. We both laughed that in the first 5 minutes we had nailed it. That does not happen too often. Perfection is complex. It takes some effort.

An hour later a wave double concussed and as I came back to the surface I saw that my housing had leaked. The dreaded Death all Water Photographers seek to avoid was in process. Due to the design of SPL’s system, the camera sits on a plate which keeps it elevated. You can technically semi flood a housing and not lose the camera if you are careful. “Hey Lars, I am out. Housing leak. Going to the beach and see if I can fix it. Camera is still alive.” Hans had just paddled out to join us.

I swum in, managing to keep the housing out of the water and in the shore pound saw I would need to take a wave to the body. In spite of backing in to the beach, I was very aware of my position. I knew that one big rock was nearby and where it was. The wave slapped me ashore and housing held high, I was swept up the beach right past that rock. Hmm. An hour down and several high risk potential things had gone down.

I climbed up the cliff, went to the back of my car, and disassembled, dried, cleaned and re assembled my gear. A half hour later I was back at water’s edge. The boys had moved back up the beach. The lineup was empty. I normally love that. But inside the voice was an alarm bell still. I had a close look, nothing apparent, dipping my housing, it was holding the seal and all seemed fine, so into the blue I plunged, and in 50 yards I was in perfect position for a beautiful backwash blast. The loud crack as the two waves blasted into oblivion made for a great capture. We all sort of live our lives in the impact zone, those of us that do this, and we truly love being there. So we mind the blasts. That is part of our innate risk management

Popping up I saw a sea lion gliding by. He was acting skittish. Not unusual. They tend to be a lot like dogs and are sometimes very friendly and at others, stand offish or aggressive. He disappeared. I noticed that I was the only thing on the surface. Then came that voice and something new: a tap on the shoulder. Something was out there with me. That never alarms me believe it or not. I just watch the water, keep my housing down around my legs and pay attention. It is not uncommon for sharks to come up and take a look at me and the sun was getting low on the horizon. It was nearing dinner time for the Sea.

I saw nothing. It had been awhile and the long period Southern hemi swell seemed to be lulling out so I worked my way into the shorepound, wishing that the boys would come back so we could shoot a bit more surf stuff. Near shore my inner alarm went off. It is this imminent collision intuition one has that was saying “Do not be here”. So I swam back out. Yep. As a blue wave danced onto the sandbar I saw the shadow and profile of the shark. Looked like a 6-8 footer.  I could not tell what type but assumed it to be a Thresher. Sort of reminded me of a Tiger though, by it’s movement. But that would be odd. He was headed away. The “alarm” went off. My inner voice was still alert.

I set about capturing and creating the images I was after, and in a bit Hans swam out to join me sans board. Bodysurfing the warm, slabby wedges. We connected a few times and were both laughing. In a bit we saw Lars wander back down the beach with  a stunning looking woman with him. They chatted a few minutes and he joined us, and began to work some difficult angles.

An hour later as the sun began to drop behind a coastal mountain to our West, I had bait rise flash all around me, and fish flew out of the water, encircling me in a silvery rainbow. I laughed. But I knew something caused that. I had seen it before swimming a remote wave in Mexico right before a very large Tiger had appeared mid wave and shown me the door.

Swimming back out, a wave doubled up and I eased under it. Uh oh. Shallow spot in the sand bar. The lip bounced me off the bottom, rag dolled me and as I surfaced, I saw some scratches on my housing port. Shoots. Damage. Repairable and the marks were not in the lens’ line of sight. Whew. Next wave was perfect. Nailed it. Then Lars, who was sitting further outside said “Hey David, check it out, we have a bait ball just offshore. Wow, did you see that? Two dolphins, a baby and an older one!”

We worked the last half hour alone as Hans had gone in and was watching us as the light ebbed. Then Lars went in, and I was out alone in the stillness of evening, light waning and realized that all was quiet inside of me. I swam to the outside shot a couple more frames and began to work shoreward. A set missed the outside sandbar and doubled up just as a backwash wave hit and I shot a final last frame, that beautiful one above.

So I dragged you along on this tale to explain that though what I do looks easy, and I make it out as such, one of the primary reasons is that I know the risks, yes, but that my perception is highly trained and tuned. That part is not so special nor as arrogant as it may at first read. It is how we all should be, who have a grasp on what it means to be human, living in a body, designed to walk the land, but composed largely of salt water, and wedded to the Sea.

Below are a few more of the 24 A list images from the evening.

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