Santa Cruz 1982

From high altitude, even the most familiar coastlines take on an entirely new dimension. Combine that bird’s-eye-view with a pulsing swell, and you can see how points and bays manipulate the ocean’s energy, bending waves to perfection. It’s that enlightening perspective that first drew Woody Woodworth toward aerial photography. He’s been shooting California’s coastline from above for years, but this season was especially fruitful, when an aerial perspective offered him the fullest view of El Niño’s unrelenting power and jaw-dropping panoramas on February 24th and 25th. “Timing is crucial when you’re trying to capture a swell by plane,” he said. “But it offers a whole different perspective. You’re up in the air, spinning around, looking up the coast, looking down the coast, and all you can see are lines—you can’t do all that from a highway by drone.”
Here, Woodworth opens the vault for a rare glimpse at California's most iconic breaks, both past and present, from the sky.

 
Photo: Santa Cruz, 1982
Ventura, 2016

Ventura, 2016

Church, Trestles, 1993

Church, Trestles, 1993

Ventura, 2016

Ventura, 2016

Church, Trestles, 1992 & 1993

Church, Trestles, 1992 & 1993

Ventura, 2016

“Looking at the forecast for the swell in February, I told [SURFER Photo Editor] Grant Ellis that I had a strong feeling this was going to be special,” says Woodworth. “This was when The Eddie was on again/off again, and the window for California looked like it was going to be great, with plenty of waves and good weather. So I drove up north to prepare for the plane trip in the early afternoon. There’s a little point about halfway between Ventura and Santa Barbara that’s always just sheet-glass and very protected from the swell; you’re lucky if you see waves there over six inches high. But when I drove by that spot that day, it practically looked like a mini Superbank. I knew right then that
this was going to be a special swell.”

 
Photo: Ventura, 2016
Doheny, 1993

Doheny State Beach, 1993

Ventura, 2016

Ventura, 2016

Ventura, 2016

Ventura, 2016

Morro Bay, 1995

Morro Bay, 1995

Ventura, 2016

Ventura, 2016

Morro Bay, 1995

Morro Bay, 1995

Santa Barbara, 2016

Santa Barbara, 2016

Santa Barbara, 2016

Santa Barbara, 2016

Santa Cruz, 1992

Santa Cruz, 1982

Rincon, 2016

Rincon, 2016

Rincon, 2016

Rincon, 2016

Santa Cruz, 1992

Santa Cruz, 1982

Rincon, 2016

Rincon, 2016

Rincon, 1976

Rincon, 1976

Rincon, 2016

Rincon, 2016

Seal Beach, 1992

Seal Beach, 1992

Ventura, 2016

“The whole process of organizing a plane and trying to time it perfectly with the lighting, conditions, and swell requires a lot of focus and follow-through, but I think the results can be really amazing,” says Woodworth. "I remember when I was flying over Ventura taking pictures of the sets, I turned to the pilot and asked him if he had ever seen anything like that swell before. He said, ‘Honestly, I never notice the waves when I’m up here flying.’ It was funny, because he was so unfazed, yet I just kept thinking, ‘This is it. This is history.’”

 
Photo: Ventura, 2016