How NOT to Photograph the Ocean

Rocky shoreline with waves crashing over the rocks, creating a dynamic flow of white water. In the background, a mountain range is illuminated by the soft glow of a setting sun, with a partly cloudy sky adding to the serene yet dramatic landscape.

This is the wave that nearly cost me a lot of money. It also taught me a few very valuable lessons that I’d like to share with everyone now, more than ten years after I took this photo.

I would first like to say that I’ve chosen not to be paid a cent by anyone to write this article. Of course, I also realize even before I start writing it that some people will respond negatively, castigating me for being so careless in the first place. That’s not going to stop me from telling my story, though. My only motivation for sharing this experience here now is to hopefully prevent anything similar from happening to someone else.

I captured this photo one evening at a beautiful location called Maiden’s Cove, near the South African city of Cape Town. I was accompanied on this occasion by a few close friends who were also passionate landscape photographers. The tide was high (but receding) when we arrived here, so the waves were still fairly large. The waves were breaking over the edge of a huge granite boulder before rushing up its side and into a small rock pool in a depression in the center of the boulder. With the soft light on the “Twelve Apostles” mountain range in the background and the interesting cloudy sky reflected in the rock pool, this is a great location for a sunset shoot.

I placed my camera bag and jacket on one of the highest (and driest) parts of the rock before setting up my camera on my tripod to wait for a wave that was big enough to spill over the edge and fill the foreground of my frame. After about 15 minutes of waiting, with no waves large enough to fill my foreground, suddenly this monster wave crashed onto the rock and rushed up the slope and over the edge of the boulder toward my camera.

Yeehaw, now THIS was the wave that we’d all been waiting for!

I quickly captured a few photos of the monster wave before lifting my tripod into the air and standing as firmly as possible. Fortunately, the force of the water didn’t knock anyone off their feet and into the ocean behind us. We were all smiling because we’d each managed to capture at least one photo of that amazing wave.

But then someone noticed something floating in the water behind us. Horrors upon horrors – it was MY camera bag and jacket that were floating in the ocean! I didn’t think twice. I jumped in fully clothed to try to save the bag (which contained several very expensive Nikon lenses) and my jacket (which contained my wallet, my cell phone, and my car keys). I first swam toward the camera bag (which was still unzipped) in a desperate attempt to save my lenses.

As soon as I reached my bag, I immediately closed the zip and then started swimming back towards the big granite boulder to pass it to one of the other people in the group. But the rock was extremely slippery and sloping gently, so I couldn’t get a decent grip on it and couldn’t stretch out far enough to pass my bag to anyone. Fortunately, one of my friends was thinking clearly enough to extend the legs of their tripod, which I was able to reach to haul myself (and my bag) out of the freezing water.

So, my camera bag was now safe, but my jacket with my wallet, phone, and keys was now drifting further and further from the rocks. I only had one option: to jump back into the waves again in an attempt to reach it before it became waterlogged and sank. Luckily, I managed to swim to my jacket before that happened, and luckily, I managed to get out of the ocean again with the help of my friends and their tripods. I let out a huge sigh of relief. Of course, I knew that my cell phone would never work again and that everything in my wallet would dry and still be usable, but I wasn’t sure about my electronic car key, and I had serious doubts that any of my lenses survived the experience.

I couldn’t believe it when I opened my camera bag to discover that everything was still completely dry. Despite the fact that it was floating in the ocean in an unzipped state for about two minutes, no water managed to enter the bag at any stage. The first important lesson that I learned on that day was that if you’re thinking of buying a new camera bag, then make sure that you choose one that can float. My bag was a Lowepro Mini Trekker AW, which has enough foam padding to ensure that it will float with some gear inside. This camera bag is still my primary bag today. It ticks all my boxes. I will admit that I own many more camera bags than cameras, so I have one for every occasion. I’m very thankful that on this occasion I had my Lowepro bag with me… because it’s my only bag that floats!

Here are six more lessons that I learned the hard way that day (in order of importance):

  1. To always keep my wallet, cell phone, and car keys on me at all times and to never put them anywhere where I can’t see them.
  2. To always keep my camera bag on my back while I’m shooting and to always zip it up again after changing lenses, etc.
  3. To never turn my back on the waves when I’m shooting at the coast, even when I’m certain that the tide is receding.
  4. To never expect that every consecutive wave on a receding tide will be smaller than all the waves before that one.
  5. To memorize the number of the most important person in my life, should I ever need to use someone else’s phone to call them.
  6. Electronic car keys still work perfectly after a few minutes dipped in salt water.

Hopefully my experience can help some of you avoid having the same thing happen to you and your camera equipment!