A Big-Wave Photographer Faces Frigid Water, Sharks and Currents to Get the Shot

When a run of massive winter swell is forecast at Mavericks, the iconic big-wave surf break 25 miles south of San Francisco, Sachi Cunningham is typically up in the pre-dawn darkness, pulling on her wet suit and readying her camera gear.

Cunningham, an ocean photographer, is at Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay by the time the first light hits. The nervous energy is palpable as jet skis and small boats rumble to life, and surfers and their teams ride out to the break, a half-mile offshore. Cunningham knows all the faces; she’ll often hitch a ride out with the big-wave surfer Bianca Valenti, whom she has been photographing for a decade.

One by one, the surfers drop into the frigid water with their surfboards. Cunningham follows them and swims around in the lineup. So fluid are her movements — even while holding a 20-pound waterproof camera — that she’s earned the nickname Seal Pup, bestowed by her friend Lance Harriman, a longtime local surfer.

To understand the challenges of the work, imagine swimming around in a cosmic washing machine filled with mortal hazards: icy water, sharks, currents, numerous bodies on 10-foot surfboards jockeying to catch waves that can grow up to 50 feet. As surfers take off at the peak of the wave, Cunningham waits and watches around the impact zone, holding on long enough to get the shot and mindful of the rapidly closing window she has to swim down deep and fast enough to escape the hundreds of tons of water falling on her head. She is often the only photographer swimming in the water at Mavericks, female or not.

“You don’t want to get the same shots as everyone else on the boat,” Cunningham said. “That’s why I swim — or one of the reasons, anyway.”

Since 2014, she has been working on a documentary film about the big-wave surfers Valenti, Keala Kennelly, Andrea Möller, and Paige Alms and their fight for equity in the sport. We spoke recently about the obstacles that remain for women in the lineup, even for Cunningham as a veteran photographer and filmmaker covering these athletes.

This conversation has been edited lightly for clarity and length.

How did you start capturing surfers trying to conquer these mountains of water?

When I was a teenager, I saw a documentary about Aaron Chang, who was part of this pioneer wave of water photographers. Years later, I was living in Japan after college and saved $6,000 to buy a film camera with a custom waterproof housing. I went to an island in the south of Japan where there was this tiny community of surfers from Tokyo and Osaka. Once I got in the water with that camera, I was like, “Oh, this is me. This is where I’m supposed to be.”

I went to grad school at University of California, Berkeley, for documentary film, and I’ve worked in film in Los Angeles and internationally for PBS Frontline making documentaries. During that time, I kept getting back in the ocean around the world, learning more and more about how to handle myself in heavy conditions.

I moved back to San Francisco to teach multimedia journalism at San Francisco State University in 2012, and had my daughter, Nami (which means wave in Japanese). Not long after that, I met Bianca during the big-wave season at Ocean Beach and started swimming out with her.

On the first day of big winter swell at Ocean Beach this season, I shot Bianca in an incredible barrel. It’s a testament to us working together and to our 10-year relationship of doing this. It’s a dance that you do. The surfer is your dance partner.

You have a theory about what makes big-wave surfers different from everyone else.

From my perspective as a water photographer, I’ve seen that many big-wave surfers are drawn to the sport because they have trauma they’re working through by doing what they do. Immersing yourself in big waves is a practice in survival — of being comfortable with and vulnerable to chaos, and making beauty out of that chaos by making it your own. I’ve survived my mom’s death from cancer, my own cancer, and two hospitalizations from bipolar disorder that surfaced in between.

For a handful of days a year, when the swell is just right, this big-wave community comes together. We all know each other’s superpowers. When you see someone backlit in the barrel and you’re there kicking like crazy to meet them in that place, it’s electric. Your finger’s in the socket. It’s magic, and it’s exactly where I want to be in that moment.

What’s your mind-set and preparation to go out on a big day, whether it’s at Mavericks or a warm-water spot like Waimea Bay on the North Shore of Oahu?

Part of the preparation is remembering to breathe deeply the day before, to try to control that excitement. I swam competitively and played water polo in college. I’ve had apnea training for big-wave surfing, I’ve done big-wave risk-assessment trainings, I’ve had two decades of training at Ocean Beach on the biggest days. The mind-set is reminding myself that I’ve prepared my whole life for this, that I have the muscle memory.

I just turned 50. I want people to know that what you’re doing now can be laying the groundwork for something you can’t even imagine that you’re going to do in the future.

I try to get a good night’s sleep, but the reality is that I’m up late getting all my gear together: multiple cameras for shooting photo and video, charging equipment, hard drives, two sets of swim fins, an impact vest, an inflatable vest, a helmet and backups of everything. Oh, and booking travel, coordinating with the surfers and my jet ski or my boat, and figuring out child-care logistics with my husband.

And when you’re in the water?

I’m inspired by the tiny animals who swim in giant surf, like surf scoters and sea turtles, what they’re doing to survive. I’m usually thinking of the window of escape — that even if I were plucked and thrown, I know what to do. For the most part, I go down to the very bottom, where the water is still. It’s usually very calm down there.

I see and feel things swimming around that other people might not be attentive to. Last season, there was a day I noticed these odd sets that were breaking exceptionally wide — wider than the surfers were expecting. I got into the boat because they were making me uncomfortable. Minutes after I got out of the water, this rogue cleanup set just took everyone out. The ocean doesn’t discriminate.

You’ve long pushed for women to get their due in the big-wave-surfing community. What’s your view on how things have changed in the sport, and how they haven’t?

Back in 2015, I introduced these big-wave women to Sabrina Brennan, the former harbor commissioner for San Mateo County. Sabrina had the idea to use California law to force organizers to include women at any Mavericks surf competition, an event that was governed by permits issued by the California Coastal Commission.

The women formed the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing, and that pushed for pay equity on the global professional surf tour organized by the World Surf League. That was big. Bianca, Keala, Andrea and Paige are ultimately competitors with each other. It’s a big deal that they came together to fight for a place at the table with contest organizers like the W.S.L. for inclusion and pay equity.

The prize money is now equal, but surfing as a sport still has work to do. Look at the world tour — the W.S.L. allows twice as many men to compete as women. The runway isn’t equal, the development of the bench isn’t equal, and that’s where I see the real work needing to be done.

You’re on the final stretch of finishing a feature documentary about how this yearslong quest unfolded. How has that process paralleled what you’ve seen in the sport?

I started shooting photos of women on waves because I never saw photos of women surfing. You don’t have to know anything about competitive surfing to know that when you see an image of a woman on a big wave for the first time, it changes what you think is humanly possible.

These women have fought for the chance to compete on the same waves, and, when they win, to get paid equal prize money to the men. I’m a female filmmaker trying to tell this story — it’s a little wild how hard that has been to do.

Ambition as a woman is an endurance sport. It’s like that dance photographers do with surfers and waves: We’ve learned how to dance; we’ve made it to the dance floor. We just need someone to turn on the lights so we can start the party.

On opening day at Mavericks in November, Bianca took 16-year-old Zoe Chait out to get her first wave. That’s the kind of mentorship I’m advocating. Momentum breeds success.

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