Once released into the digital wilds, photos have a habit of taking on a life of their own.
Like the biological agent after which they’re named, viral shots live in a constant spin cycle of copying, editing, resizing and resharing, until one day enough variations exist to fill a small desert server farm.
Surf shots seem particularly susceptible, with millions of Instagram accounts, Pinterest boards and Tumblr blogs dedicated to sourcing and sharing digital depictions of wave riding around the globe. Often, these images become stripped of their context, with the location and identity of both surfer and photographer getting lost along the way as they tumble through cyberspace.
Recently, we set about investigating the real stories behind some of the internet’s most well known and widely shared surf shots for a series on our Instagram. Here, we’ve pulled all the posts together for you to peruse and enjoy.
First up, this Instagram favourite, which we’re afraid to report owes a lot to photoshop.
The original image was captured at Impossibles, on Bali’s Bukit peninsula and features just four breaking waves which have then been repeated in a random sequence all the way to the horizon. (Eg, 4,5 & 7 are all the same wave)
The resulting image is widely labelled as Chicama in Peru, which in reality can play host to half a dozen breaking waves stacked up the point and can be surfed for over a mile on a good day. Impossibles, on the other hand, tends to be fast, sectiony and as the name suggests, extremely hard to link up from the top take-off spot to the barrelling end section.
If you’re curious as to how we arrived at this conclusion, we’ve outlined the full details of our online archaeological dig here.
After growing up 30 minutes from the coast in New South Wales, Lachie got his first taste of solid waves aged 18, when on the last day of a trip to Chile, he borrowed a gun off local legend Ramon Navarro and was pictured flying down the face of a sparkling 20 footer at Punta Lobos. He took his newfound penchant for big waves and big boards home with him, hitting headlines in 2016 after stroking into what many called the biggest wave ever ridden at Avalon beach.
And then came this crazy frame, captured during a solid session at a mysto east coast Aussie slab. Despite the precise wax-job visible on the deck and Lachie’s impeccable technique, the image still left a lot of people asking if he made it… hit the right arrow on the image above for the answer.
This excellent shot by Chris Peel features an empty sunrise a-frame in Papua New Guinea.
Unlike many reefs of a similar calibre, this spot is rarely crowded thanks to the country’s tourism management scheme, which hands ownership of each surf spot over to the local community who live on the land adjacent.
While some might baulk at PNG’s pay-to-surf policy, it allows locals to benefit directly from surf tourism, while quotas stave off the prospect of Indo style over-crowding. Each community is also responsible for preserving their portion of the coast, with the income raised from visitor fees incentivising them to protect the natural environment and eradicating the need for more ecologically destructive ways of funding community development.
Photo: Chris Peel
Next up, this image of Craig Anderson cruising at massive Kandui on a 5’4 Hypto.
Captured in 2015, it came at a time when the surf world was saturated with clips of people bouncing down the face of giant waves in full power stance survival mode. Craig’s casual approach offered up something entirely different; a triple overhead wave wrangled with more style and ease than most surfers could hope to muster on an easy peeling four-footer at a trundling point.
“That was the biggest wave I got,” he told Stab after the swell. “It was probably a six-wave set, some of the best waves I’ve ever seen. I wanted to spin on the first one, and the second one, but I was scared ‘cause the day before I’d gone on the first wave of the set and got detonated. It didn’t rattle me, I just didn’t want to do that again. So for some reason, I just swung on the last, biggest one that didn’t quite hit the reef properly. I made the drop real late and the wave just spat. I bottom turned, and it was just a perfect wall to snowboard on. I didn’t turn hard or anything, just did a sort of highline carve-down thing.”
The clip helped usher in a new era, where a stylish bottom turn to ‘highline carve-down thing’ became as revered in the public imagination as a more technical or high-performance line.
Photo: Iker San Martin
The next image is definitely among the genre’s most iconic, featuring Greg Noll in his trademark black and white trunks, staring out at a giant wave at Pipe.
It was captured on the original Big Wednesday in 1964 by John Severson, as the swell of the decade pummelled the North Shore. The inside at Pipe had been surfed for the first time just three years earlier and was still seen as an impossible challenge at the size showing that morning, so Greg and Mike Stang decided to have a crack at third reef instead; a fickle and seldom surfed outer bombie which breaks way out the back of the Banzai.
This image was shot as Noll stood scanning the lineup for a channel or lull that might let him and Mike through the shorepound. Once in the water, the paddle out took them two hours and then, when they arrived at the peak, Noll waited another two for a wave. Finally, he scratched into one.
“All I could do is spread out and hope for the best,” he remembers. “As I went down the face, I could hear the board chattering…then nothing. It just raised me off the bottom. The wind caught it, lifted me up four feet off the wave, and then I fell.” After that, he was forced to swim boardless, back through the crushing inside to the beach, in a feat onlookers said left him lucky to be alive.
Photo: John Severson
Next up, this image of Indonesian surfer Dede Surinaya enveloped in a tube filled with trash, captured in Java in 2013 by Zak Noyle
Indonesia is the world’s second-largest contributor to marine ocean plastic. This image serves as a visceral illustration of the issue, which owes in large part to a lack of waste collection and management facilities. The geography of the country also makes recycling difficult, with 17,000 small islands producing recyclable waste that needs to be transported to the larger ones to be processed.
In the years since the shot was taken the government have pledged to reduce marine plastic debris by 70% by 2025 and taken some active steps to get there. These include working to replace single-use plastics in the supply chain, doubling waste collection and recycling capacity and welcoming innovative technological solutions, like an AI app that allows waste workers to track the value of the waste they’re collecting. However, according to locals there’s still a lot of work to do, especially in Java, and the volume of trash pouring into the sea in fact appears to only be growing larger.
Photo: Zak Noyle
Here’s a classic portrait of Hawaiian surfing icon Montgomery Kaluhiokalani, better known as Buttons.
Nicknamed by his grandma on account of his cylindrical curls, Buttons was renowned for his smooth, powerful style that was flush with innovation. His tail slides, laybacks and carving 360s blazed the trail for modern high-performance surfing, while his captivating if erratic personality held him in the media spotlight throughout the late 70s and early 80s.
As the decade wore on, he drifted out of the public consciousness as he struggled with a cocaine addiction and a string of arrests. However, after an appearance on reality show ‘Dog The Bounty Hunter’ following a skipped bail in 2007, he got sober, re-focussed on his fitness, opened a surf school in Oahu and could be found shredding on the North Shore until he sadly passed away from lung cancer in aged 55.
Photo: Jeff Divine Photographer
Here’s the next image, featuring Kai Lenny dropping out of a Mavericks’ lip, in the midst of the El Nino winter of 2015/ 16, captured by French lensman Bastien Bonnarme.
The most widely circulated version sees the frame tilted and cropped to make the drop appear even more vertical. However, for our money, the original is a far superior shot, with the cascading lip and Lenny’s still impossibly critical take-off beautifully framed against the San Pedro valley.
While most shoot Mavericks with a long lens from a boat or ski in the channel, Bastien swam for this session using a 24-35mm lens, which forced him to get up close to the action and afforded him the unique perspective that has made the shot so iconic.
“I was thinking about that for years and years,” he told Huck Magazine,
of the feat. “Nobody tried to swim there before; the sharks, the rocks, the cold water. But I could see it clearly in my head and was determined to do it. There’s a lot of adrenaline and violence in that image, but there’s also the perfection of the wave and the colours.”
Photo: Bastien Bonnarme
The next shot features a perfect peak breaking on the sands of Martha Lavinia Beach.
The wave is located on the northeast shore of the beautiful King Island, which sits halfway between Australia and Tasmania in the middle of the Bass Strait.
Photographer Sean Davey has been visiting the island for almost 30 years and considers this stretch of beach his favourite in the world. However, its future as a pristine wilderness is under threat.
In 2018, Tassal, an Australian salmon farming company was granted a permit to investigate the possibility of installing an industrial-sized fish farm near the break. Locals, surfers and environmentalists worry that, if built, it would disturb the prevailing sand flow, create huge amounts of pollution and threaten more sustainable fishing and farming practices that have been in place for hundreds of years. The community snapped into action, enlisting the help of the Save The Waves Coalition and various other groups to mobilize the global surf community to join the fight.
At the time of writing, the battle is still very much ongoing. To add your voice to the opposition, sign the ‘Save Martha Lavinia Beach’ petition on change.org.
Photo: Sean Davey
Next up, it’s Laird Hamilton’s Millennium Wave by Tim Mckenna
Although Teahupoo had already been surfed for 15 years by the year 2000, this was by far the heaviest, thickest wave ever ridden at the spot, or anywhere in the world for that matter.
Laird had been at the forefront of big wave tow surfing since the early 90s, but that day in Tahiti saw waves a long way beyond the magnitude of anything he’d whipped into previously. The sheer volume of bright blue Pacific Ocean drawing up the reef, combined with Laird’s impeccable positioning in its jaws, blew everyone’s minds when the image appeared on the cover of Surfer Mag (and the LA Times).
More than just an amazing shot, it shifted the surfing world’s perception of what was possible by several notes, setting the bar for the decade of obsessive jet-ski powered giant hollow wave hunting that followed.
Photo: Tim Mckenna
This image features Bruno Santos riding the ‘Seven Ghosts’ section of the Bono river bore in Indonesia.
The ‘Bono’ (Indonesian for ‘it’s true’) breaks in the Kampar River, which weaves through the heart of the Sumatran jungle and is widely considered to be the hollowest, most rippable river wave on earth.
This photo was captured in 2011 during a Rip Curl Search mission led by Antony Colas, and although the trip produced images of the first proper bore barrels ever ridden, it is this shot of Bruno standing casually on a glassy head-high roller, as an endless wave train extends into the distance, that seemed to most capture the public imagination.
Perhaps it’s the perfect formation and symmetry of each wave or the fact it evokes the idea of the endless ride that surfers so covet. Indeed, Santos reportedly surfed a single wave for 35 minutes straight on the trip, as it broke and reformed through the various sections of the river. However, reports of extortion by local ‘security guards’, bacterial infections from the filthy sewage-filled river water, capsized boats and eight-foot crocks suggest the surfing experience wasn’t quite as perfect as it may appear from the shots.
Photo: Lawrence // Rip Curl
Here’s our penultimate viral surf shot, featuring Justine Dupont captured from inside the barrel by Laurent Pujol at a whomping French beachie in 2013.
The 47-year-old ex-pro surfer is one of the few photographers on earth who can legitimately say they’ve pioneered an entirely new way of capturing surfing, because although this angle had been tried with a GoPro before, Pujol took it to a whole new level.
To achieve this image, both Justine and Pujol did a jet ski step off, enabling them to get onto the wave early and set their line before it started to break. As the lip pitched and Dupont pulled in, Pujol faded deep and pumped the trigger, rattling off a few frames, before diving off into the trough. Once underwater, he hugged his camera tight to his belly to avoid the port hitting the floor, or the bulky housing whacking him in the face and waited to pop up and be picked up by the ski for another go.
Since then, others have taken Pujol’s method even further, with Mark Mathews utilising it in the heaving slabs of WA and, perhaps most famously, Leroy Bellet shooting from inside the barrel at macking Teahupoo.
Do you think the technique has reached the pinnacle of its potential? Or will the future see even bigger, heavier waves play host to such shots? Let us know in the comments.
Photo: Laurent Pujol
Here’s the final instalment, featuring Mick Hoult locked in at a beyond-shallow slab in Tasmania, by Stu Gibson.
This east coast spot only works about once a year according to Gibson, so when he saw a massive swell marching across the Tasman sea towards it, with an unusually sunny forecast to accompany, he knew he had to hit it.
“The only plan was to swim this rare wave to show how heavy it actually is,” Gibson told The Image Story website, “when shooting it from a boat you don’t see how close the guys go to the rock slab!”
“I wanted to be really close to the action, but so much water is moving around, and it tries to suck you around the back of the rock,” he continues. “It’s a really dangerous wave — another friend of mine broke two vertebrae on that rock.”
“It was definitely an “oh shit” moment,” he says of the wave featured in the image. “It was slightly smaller than what we surf at that place, so it broke super close to the rock. Mick came from super deep behind the rock and almost fell right on it.
I was shooting but also in my mind thinking, “Ah no this isn’t going to end well!” He did this epic recovery lay back thing and swooped straight past the rock — it was so sick until the next section hit him and he tore the ligaments in his ankle. He didn’t surf for 2 months.”
Photo: Stu Gibson
Cover photo: Matt Hipsley