Surfing in the Age of the Omnipresent Camera
On a recent, sunny Friday morning, a group of journalists and photographers gathered on the roof deck of the Surfrider Malibu, a boutique hotel that looks out over the iconic surf break for which it’s named. We were there for a demo of a new feature from Surfline, an iPhone app best known for its surf forecasts. Called Sessions, the feature captures the waves surfers ride and downloads the videos to their phones. “The pro guys have their personal filmers documenting their every ride,” Dave Gilovich, Surfline’s chipper, sixty-seven-year-old brand director, said. “Well, Surfline Sessions is for the everyman.”
“See that camera over there?” Gilovich pointed to a camera mounted atop the slanted roof of the hotel. I knew it well; it shoots the live feed of the waves at First Point, a section at Surfrider, and I check it most mornings. “We have over six hundred of these at breaks around the world, rolling day and night,” he said. “Combined with the latest in wearable technology, and the software that we’ve developed, the camera can identify the surfer as they take off on a wave. To put it simply, you go out, you surf, and, before you’ve even changed out of your wetsuit, your waves are downloaded to your phone, ready for you to watch.”
Over fresh pastries and coffee, Gilovich gave us a glimpse into an immediate future where no ride goes undocumented. “Say there’s some kid on the south side of Huntington Pier, and he’s getting good, and he’s been trying to bust his first air reverse,” he said. “He’s sitting off the peak—he’s not with the alpha dogs yet. But that one morning he throws it up.” Gilovich demonstrated an arcing twirl with his fingers. “The air reverse completes, he sticks the fins, and he rides out of it. Now it will be documented via the cam, and he’ll have that for the rest of his life.”
It was a good day for documenting. At First Point, sets of shimmering head-high waves were peeling off with precision. More than a hundred and fifty surfers dotted the water, with three or four often riding the same wave. At least half were likely tipped off to the excellent swell by Surfline, a company that has changed surfing with both the live cams at popular breaks and super accurate swell forecasting. Gilovich pulled out a stash of Apple Watches from his duffel bag. “You just press this Start button right before you paddle out, then you go for your surf, and when you get out you press Stop. Simple as that,” he said. We strapped the watches to our wrists, changed into our wetsuits, grabbed our boards, and headed for the water.
As a former professional surfer and as a documenter of surfing for nearly thirty years, I’ve observed how the omnipresent camera has affected surf style. In a clip on The Surfer’s Journal’s Web site, for instance, the South African pro Michael February surfs solo at a remote point break in West Africa. His hand jive, soul arches, and toreador-like flourishes play to the camera in a way that breaks the spell of the itinerant surfer in far-flung solitude. His style is as self-conscious as the duck-face selfie. And by no means is February alone. Scroll through Instagram and you’ll see it: exaggerated arms, too-perfect fingers, the surf dance served up almost smugly.
I’ve always thought of style as something instinctive and spontaneous—how you might react, say, dancing alone to your favorite song. I was curious to get the eleven-time world champion Kelly Slater’s take. “Style should be natural and not perfect,” he wrote, fittingly, in a direct message on Instagram. “I really dislike watching someone, anyone, who seems to be trying to look a certain way.” But the effect of the camera in surfing goes much deeper than just style. “One of the true gifts of surfing is the privacy of it,” Scott Hulet, the longtime editor and current creative director of The Surfer’s Journal, told me over the phone. “That’s going away, and it’s at a great, great, great hazard to the experience. We’re so infatuated with getting looked at now—look at me, look at me, and look at me!—that we’re losing the magic of surfing being a low-profile activity.”
For the first half of the twentieth century, surfers in Southern California were few and far between. Then came “Gidget,” surf music, the beach-party movies, “The Endless Summer.” By the mid-sixties, surfing had exploded into a national craze. Surf breaks got crowded. Surfers got territorial. In the seventies, first-rate breaks were discovered in Indonesia, Central America, Europe, the South Pacific; they appeared in surf magazines and movies, but their exact locations were left intentionally vague. “Identifying a new break to the surfing public at large . . . became the grossest possible violation of the surf traveler’s code,” Matt Warshaw wrote in “The History of Surfing.”
By the time the world pro tour launched, in 1976, surfing was roughly divided into two camps: those who hailed it as a pure and free-form art that deserved much better than the scrutiny of judges and winners; and those in favor of competition, of growth, of legitimizing it as a serious sport. The I.P.S. (International Professional Surfers) world tour hit all the popular surfing locales—Japan, South Africa, Australia, Brazil, Florida, Hawaii—but there was one inherent flaw: the waves were often terrible. Contests were scheduled a full year in advance, and there was no telling what the surf would be like on the day.
In the early eighties, the “photo surfer” came to the fore—you earned your sponsorship dollars not by doing well in contests but by appearing in the magazines and videos. To the surfing purists, this was an even further bastardization. If surf contests had homogenized the free jazz of wave-riding, surfing for “the shot” was a vulgar kind of selling out. I turned pro in 1986. My contracts with Quiksilver, Rip Curl, Pro-Lite, and Oakley all had photo incentives. You earned a specific amount for a cover, a double-page spread, a full page, half page, quarter page. The logo had to be visible; hence, we crammed them all onto the nose of the board. I remember showing a new board to one of the old-school surfers at Malibu. “Nice-looking stick,” he said. “But way too many bumper stickers.” Shooting with photographers upended everything that I’d been taught about quality surfing. You went for the single, melodramatic “kill” move at the expense of flowing with and making the wave. New verbs entered the surf lexicon: shred, tear, lacerate.
In 1985, Surfline introduced 976-surf, a pay-per-call (fifty-five cents) surf report that was updated every morning and afternoon. For another fifty-five cents, you could get transferred to a seventy-two-hour forecast. For a few months in 1987, I worked for Surfline, to supplement my meagre sponsorship retainer. Monday through Friday, at 6:30 a.m. and at noon, I’d field a call from a pay phone at Malibu and County Line (rather than the other way around, which could have been fudged) and deliver the report: “First Point showing fun, knee-to-waist-high waves, with a light north-wind bump. Should improve with the incoming tide.” I kept this side hustle a secret—I didn’t want to be the guy trumpeting the good days.
In 1996, Surfline launched the first surf cams at the U.S. Open, in Huntington Beach. By this time, surf forecasting, too, had made great advances. Now you could not only check the day’s waves from your home or office but get a pretty good sense of what they’d be doing in the week ahead, and plan your schedule accordingly. “The phone and Web-cam technology Surfline used in the early days came from the porn industry,” Gilovich told me. “They were the first to make a viable business out of pay-per-call services and, later, video streaming on the Internet.”
Digital technology conspired in pro surfing’s favor. During the first couple decades of the world tour, contest venues were chosen on the basis of being able to cram as many people onto the beach as possible, often at the expense of wave quality. The introduction of the live Web cast gave birth to the “Dream Tour,” events held at the world’s greatest surf breaks—one at the edge of a remote Indonesian jungle, another at the “Cloudbreak,” in Fiji. Advanced surf forecasting spawned the “surgical strike,” where surfers would travel halfway across the world to meet the apex of the swell. (The Hawaiian big-wave surfer Ian Walsh once told me how he’d flown from Honolulu to Tahiti, scored barrelling waves at Teahupo’o, and travelled home less than twenty-four hours later.) The photo surfer morphed into the free surfer, a purportedly more soulful version of the former, who spun his or her magic—in front of the camera—on beautiful waves all around the world.
In 1983, the I.P.S. changed its name to the Association of Surfing Professionals, which, in 2015, became the World Surf League (W.S.L.). The tenor of the league was rebooted by Paul Speaker, a former N.F.L. marketing director, who helped give the world-tour events a revved-up, Super Bowl-ish tenor. The live Web casts now include more stats, instant replays, and analysis. Cameras trail the athletes as they psych up for their heats with cue-the-“Rocky”-theme-song intensity. Some in the surfing community love it. Others feel the sport has been stripped of its saltwater soul. Perhaps in response the free surfer has turned ever more scraggly-haired, more rambling beatnik. In viral videos, they ride retro board designs and in old-fashioned wetsuit styles. They appear glassy-eyed, barefoot, often clutching acoustic guitars. They travel to exotic destinations and play with the local kids in the waves. On the surface, it looks something like “The Endless Summer,” cut from 1963 and pasted into the Kardashian present. But the Kardashian side of it prevails. You sense the free surfer’s hyperawareness of the camera—and, even more so, the surf industry’s heavy-handed effort to sell it as “soul surfing.”
The signature move of the W.S.L. surfer is the “claim.” After completing a great ride or an advanced trick, the athlete will fist-pump, or point a cocky finger, or do some version of a touchdown boogie. The free-surfing equivalent is the soul arch—a casual, stylish moment of repose. Or, as Kelly Slater wrote, “Styling out can be natural on a great wave when you’re overwhelmed and maybe trying to match the beauty of the wave with your ride.” But, like the claim, the soul arch has to be earned. Often it is not. Today it is not just the skilled surfer soul-arching for the cameras. It’s the everyman. It’s even the beginner. And an hour later you just know that it’s going to be posted on Instagram.
Surfers have always loved pictures of themselves. You travel to an exotic place like Bali, you connect with a solid swell, you nab a good one at a famous break like, say, Uluwatu, and you want a photo of it as a memento. A couple of years ago I was out surfing Sultans, a well-known break in the Maldives. The sky was cloudless, the water a crystalline turquoise. The lineup had surfers from Israel, France, Australia, and Brazil. Sultans breaks off the tip of an uninhabited island, and it’s only accessible by boat. You feel like you’re a long way from the hurried masses. I managed to score a set wave and pulled into a nice, spiralling tube. Slithering through it, I nearly collided with an in-water photographer pointing his camera at me. As I was paddling back out, he flashed me a thumbs-up and said, “I think I got a good shot.” Then he swam over and handed me his waterproof business card. I’ve encountered versions of this photographer in Sayulita, Waikiki, and La Jolla.
Back in California, on my way to the water, I ran into my friend Mike Pitscitelli , a longtime Malibu surfer. When I told him about Surfline Sessions, and how immediately after my surf I’d be able to play back my waves, he laughed and said, “Whenever I see myself surf, it just bums out my whole experience.” He had a point. How we imagine ourselves surfing and how we actually surf are often two different things. Jockeying amid the pack, I saw a neat, shoulder-high wave that stood up and looked to be all mine. I paddled into position, wheeled around, dropped in, and popped to my feet and angled right, a side-stance inflection that is deeply etched into my muscle memory. I rode high in the trim line, the dimpled blue wall zippering fast, the frothy lip like a stripe of icing. I was oblivious to the Apple Watch on my wrist. But, then, clearly, I wasn’t, because, when a surfer a few yards down the line dropped in, I whooped with the proprietary tenor of a man whose ride was being logged by Surfline Sessions—which, of course, it was. He kicked out. But that minor infraction, the fact that he nearly ruined my little fifteen seconds, made me surf harder. I weaved my board up and down, up and down. I crouched low through a steep section. I tried not to be self-conscious, which only heightened my self-consciousness.
Making my way back to the Surfrider, I thought about the notion of having your every wave documented, and what that means. Posting your waves is not sacrilege, but exposing breaks sort of is, and those two things are nearly one and the same. But, then, spots like Malibu are way past the point of no return, and many would argue that, with the Internet and G.P.S., all spots are fair game. My discomfort was more basic. For so many of us surfers, the ocean is where we go to work things out, to heal, to escape. And for it to become all about the photo op cheapens the experience. And, even if the documenting or the posting is not your thing, you’ll inevitably be surrounded by surfers for whom it is. Emerging from the water with these thoughts, I did not have to wait long before the contradictions of modern surfing returned. Up on the roof deck, we went straight for our phones. Gilovich smiled broadly. “Soon we’ll be able to alert you when the conditions are to your exact liking, based on what you’ve rated with five stars,” he said. He went on about algorithms, and a bunch of other tech stuff, but none of us were listening. We were checking out our waves.