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Adventure: The conditions look incredible. What was the general mood at Teahupoo, Tahiti, that day?
Photographer Brian Bielmann: This was the heaviest day anyone ever surfed or shot. Everyone was excited. But the people with more experience were very concerned. We really expected that someone was going to die—and not necessarily the surfers. It gets very dangerous in the channel with so many boats. The police were calling this day a double-red alert and were not letting anyone in the water. As the day went on, surfers were going out anyway. Before you knew it, there were 50 boats and hundreds of spectators. It was a madhouse. By noon, the swell had peaked and Nathan [Fletcher] decided to sit in the lineup and catch a wave.
A: Where were you located to get this shot?
B.B.: Every time a wave came through, we had to wait for the boat in front of us to go over the wave. Then the next row of boats lined up and so on. In our case, we were always the farthest boat inside. If you watch video footage, you’ll see boats going over the wave. We were the boat barley making it over. We had the most fearless boat driver in Tahiti, and that is the reason I got the shot. All the other boats were already at the top of the wave looking down or on the other side of the wave.
We saw this wave coming, and it was much bigger than any other waves that day. Nathan caught the wave and we watched him ride the biggest tube ever ridden, all the way through the inside of the wave. At the very end of the wave, he boosted an air, and then was finally over taken by the wave.
A: Did you know you got the shot?
B.B.: After the wave passed, I looked at my viewfinder and saw this shot. I remember zooming in and checking whether it was sharp, but it’s really hard to tell on the water. Along with my constant prayers all day to get back safely, I was also praying for the shot to be in focus. When I finally saw the photo, I knew it was the best shot I had ever gotten in my life.
A: What was the most unusual thing that happened during the shoot?
B.B: The waves were so big this day; they were rushing up the shore and slamming into people’s homes, dragging all kinds of things into the ocean. At one point I saw a refrigerator floating through the lineup. When I got home, we realized it was our fridge that I had photographed floating through the waves. Can you imagine being on a wave and having a fridge land on you while you’re riding?
A: How is photographing Teahupoo different than other swells?
B.B.: The thing about this wave is it breaks below sea level. The lip of the wave throws out farther, sometimes, than the wave is tall. When it’s at its best, it’s usually a perfect wave and a surfer can get the best tube of his life.
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If you wipe out, you can get caught on the lip and just keep getting sucked up the wave face and thrown over the lip continually.
The other special thing about this wave is you can get very close to the wave because of the channel. Only so many boats can fit in this channel. Teahupoo is in front of you while you’re in the channel and another wave breaks behind you. Boats have gone over the lip and been sucked into the reef.
A: As a surfer yourself, is this the type of day you live to shoot?
B.B.: I’m a surfer, and that’s why I became a photographer, but there are only a handful of surfers in the world who can surf these waves. Yes, this is the kind of day I live to photograph.