Mavericks perfection, shot from the front row.

Derek Dunfee is Redefining Big Wave Photography


Photos by Derek Dunfee

Derek Dunfee has been intimate with big lumps of water for some time.

Over the last 10 to 15 years, Derek’s established himself as one of the most respected of surfing’s strange clan of alpha males—big wave surfers. Growing up in southern California (his beloved La Jolla to be exact), big waves changed everything for Derek, and since being exposed to them, regardless of sponsors, budgets, work, life, he’s geared everything towards being in the right place to experience the ocean when it’s at its most beautiful and ferocious. Derek’s still very much on the programme, but his priorities have shifted. His immigration form now reads ‘Photographer” under occupation rather than “Surfer.”

Peahi in all its glory.

“I’ve always had a passion for photography and I’ve always travelled by myself,” Derek tells me on the phone from La Jolla. “I’d take a camera and document everything and I just wanted to share it.” The way that Derek chose to capsule his work was through his periodical zine, DEKKA, so called after his longtime nickname. “The first two DEKKAs covered 2004 to 2014, maybe a bit before. I had a photo show and stuff and then DEKKA Vol 3 focussed on Mavericks and my water photography out there.” Talking to Derek you can tell that Mavericks is a special place for him. “The first time I surfed there was in December 2004,” he tells me. “It was the craziest shit I’ve ever seen and I was hooked.”

Can’t get much closer than that.

But surfing waves like Mavericks takes its toll. And a mixture of injury, sponsorship drying up and life in general, has nudged Derek into pursuing his photography. Something that he’s evidently stoked about. “I’ve had a lot of injuries over the last 10 to 15 years,” he tells me. “but it’s given me a lot of chances to learn. I’ve been shooting with a housing for 10 years, but then the last five years I’ve really pushed my big wave photography. I didn’t have any sponsors and was working at the fish market in La Jolla and I kept chasing swells and shooting and working to invest in better equipment.” Usually, when big swells hit around the globe, you just see the wipeouts, the best wave, and maybe one special shot from the day on Instagram. But what makes Derek’s photography so compelling is the intimacy; the little things between the trophy moments.

Collective destruction.

I ask Derek what goes on inside his head when, after all the preparation, cost and effort to get there, he’s in the path of a huge, perfect wave. The same thing he’s been doing for a large portion of his life, only now he’s capturing someone else doing it. “Now it’s all about shooting,” he says, “All the best big swells I’m dedicated to shooting. Most of the time I’m shooting from my board, so I can ditch the camera when I want and go catch a few waves. But the best time of the swell I’m shooting.” He adds, “The glassy days when it’s perfect is when I’ve got no probs putting the camera down.” Derek’s latest photographic project is the most recent installment of DEKKA, which features photos from the year that Derek just spent on the road with Hawaiian waterman and everything-boarder Kai Lenny.

Fleeting, and beautiful.

Derek’s known Kai for some time thanks to Kai’s early jaunts to Mavericks, and thanks to Kai’s sponsor, Derek was able to spend the whole year charting the remarkable schedule of one of the best big wave surfers in the world. I’ve just received mine in the mail, and it’s an amazing document of what goes into trying to slip down the largest waves to break each year. “We started in Puerto Escondido in August and ended in Nazaré in February,” Derek says. “Kai’s one of the best in the world. He could easily get the biggest wave ever. Jaws for Kai Lenny is an all-day event. He leaves the harbour at four in the morning and we leave at dark. 10 boards, all different. And not surfing safe, getting caught inside… it’s unbelievable, he’s got unlimited energy. And he eats Taco Bell. Seriously, he brings like, 20 to 30 bean and cheese burritos out to the lineup.”

Kai Lenny, warming up for a Jaws marathon.

Getting caught inside’s an integral part of big wave surfing. The thought of getting a 30, 40 plus footer on the head is pure terror, but doing so with a heavy housing is even more daunting. I ask Derek for some shooting horror stories, and there are numerous Mavericks incidents. But it was during one of the marathon Jaws sessions that Derek admits he got the most spooked. “It was at Jaws when Kai towed into the biggest wave of his life, maybe an hour before sunrise,” Derek says. “Definitely one of my scariest surfing situations. It’s 70 to 80 ft. and Kai’s straight out there saying he’s going to tow. No one’s there yet and it’s just starting to get light. I frothed out and jumped off the boat and the captain’s like ‘Set!’ I’m on my board with my camera thinking I might jump back on the boat, and the boat just left me. Biggest set of the day and I almost got caught. I was terrified. I don’t get Peahi at that size. It looked like the whole horizon was going to break.”

DD getting the shot. (Photo by Ryan Chachi Craig)

It’s such a vibrant time for big wave surfing, especially paddling, with the limits being constantly tested by both pros and anonymous chargers alike. So it’s crucial to have someone with intimate knowledge of the form, and the technical ability and eye to capture it. Derek’s full steam into the next edition of DEKKA, and this time he’s looking to step it up again. “There’s a bunch of waves I want to shoot differently and experiment with different angles,” he says. “For the next DEKKA I’m going to be at the best swells and I’m going to put the best photos of the best surfers in.” The mailman can’t come soon enough.

The spoils.

Keep up with Derek on the gram, and get a copy of DEKKA on his site.

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