Words and interview by Gabriela Aoun
Before I ever saw surf photographer Maria Fernanda Bastidas' work, I saw her process. Standing behind the barricade of Kamehameha Highway as it ascends and overlooks Waimea Bay, I had just watched two-time world champion Tom Carroll walk up the road carrying the pieces of his big-wave gun, snapped in half by waves with 20-foot-plus faces.
When I turned back toward the beach, out of the punishing Waimea Bay shorebreak emerged a woman with fins and a bodyboard … and a camera housing.
Deterred by shore pound, strong currents, a long swim and waves that can close out the entire Bay, very few photographers swim out at Waimea on big days, and even fewer still (and maybe none at all up until a few years ago) have been women.
Growing up landlocked in Mexico City, Bastidas had been on swim team practically all her life, but she had no idea that what she was training for was to eventually become one of a handful of female photographers who swim out at some of the most dangerous waves in the world.
Becoming a surf photographer was a happy accident for Bastidas. She graduated with a business degree, but followed the unexpected signs and opportunities that changed her path. Now 29 years old, Bastidas splits her time between the North Shore of Oahu and mainland Mexico, gradually pushing herself into waves of increasing consequence, navigating crowded photographer lineups, recovering from a terrifying injury and balancing pursuing her passion with making a living.
What was the first surf photo you ever took, and what camera did you use?
It was 10 years ago in a surf town in Mexico. I was doing my professional practices for college, and there were these groms there from California doing a surf trip. My friend was taking them around to surf and because I could speak English he asked me if I could come help translate.
I went with them and I was just taking pictures and I realized I loved it. I was just using a simple digital camera.
How about in the water? When was your first photo?
Five or six years ago I came to Hawaii. I was volunteering at [non-profit] Surfing the Nations and surf photographer Peter Sterling would come in there a lot. He had cancer and he was getting older, and he wanted to pass on what he knew.
Someone told him about me because I was a swimmer, so Peter came to me. I said I wanted to work with him and he told me to come back in the winter and he would teach me. So I went back home to Mexico to save money, and I went back to Hawaii for the winter.
Peter helped me by taking me to the beach. I knew how to swim since I was a little girl but I was landlocked in Mexico. We would sit and he would tell me about the swells and the currents, where the channel was.
Was there a particular surfer you worked with who was influential for you?
After that winter, I came in the summer to go to the Na Pali Coast on Kauai. I had swam it once with Bethany Hamilton and I came back to kayak it.
Bethany asked how my photography was going, I told her I was just starting, and she offered to have me come to Kauai to come practice with her.
No one gets that opportunity! So I figured I might as well buy the whole camera setup and really do this. I went to Kauai for a month. I’d shoot with her, and when she wasn’t around, with her brother and his friends who were all bodyboarders.
Back then I was still living in Mexico. I didn’t know whether to pursue photography. I had just graduated with a business degree. But I thought, well, not many people in the world get this opportunity, to practice with one of the most famous surfers in the world.
So you basically didn’t start shooting until after you graduated college. Did you ever doubt yourself and what you were doing out there?
I still doubt myself. I’m not making that much money, sometimes I wonder if I should have just stayed in the city, done a normal career. But I’ve already given up so much and I’m so happy, I have to remind myself that I probably would have been unhappy.
I don’t doubt myself in the water, I was born to be in the water. But I had a bad injury last year that scared me. I was swimming on one of the big days at Puerto Escondido. I probably was the only one swimming.
I had been there for about two hours, the current was crazy and I was tired. Because the waves were so big, I tried to go in where I thought it was smaller, but no one can see you there if you get hurt. A big wave exploded right in front of me. It was so shallow I couldn’t dive to avoid it so I curled up in a little ball. I grabbed my camera with one hand and covered my nose with the other. The wave ripped my legs away from my body and I felt my knee pop right away.
I still had to take a couple more waves to the head and then swim in. I’ve broken many bones but I’ve never felt so much pain. I tore my ACL, MCL and meniscus.
I went through the worst month of my life physically emotionally. Even now, I have my confidence but my body is just still not strong enough.
How do you afford your passion? Have you had to make financial sacrifices?
I sold my car to buy my first camera and housing. Now I do private swim coaching. It’s important because I do it on my own schedule and I don’t have to answer to anyone. I can still travel.
How about swimming in the lineup? You were a swimmer your whole life, but swimming in the surf is a different story. Where did you start swimming to shoot?
The first time I swam out was at Haleiwa. It wasn’t that big. When it gets bigger, the current gets gnarly, but that first day was perfect. My dream was to swim at Pipeline, so the next season when I came to practice with Bethany I shot all over the north shore of Kauai, and I went to crazy spots so that I would feel ready for my first day at Pipe.
I went by myself to Pipe. It wasn’t that big and it wasn’t that bad. I just started swimming more and more. I always was a swimmer but it’s way different in the ocean, even just wearing fins makes it different.
How did you work your way up to bigger surf?
I remember watching all the surfers at Waimea, and I figured if they can paddle out there I can swim out there. Maybe not as fast as they paddle, but it’s doable.
I used to swim to train at Waimea so I knew the place. When there are no waves, you can study what’s underneath and how it works. I used to come every morning and swim it when it was flat.
A veteran photographer told me take a Boogie Board so that you have a floatation device. You can sit on it, you can rest if you’re tired.
I was doing that for a while, but in the shorebreak it was just too much to manage the camera, the fins, the Boogie Board. So I said no more Boogie Board.
So I started swimming and working my way closer in the channel. About two years ago, I started wearing an impact vest. I use a very thin one for wakeboarding. It helps you pop up faster and if you get unconscious you’ll at least be floating and people can see you. It also makes you swim a little faster.
What’s it like being in the lineup at Pipe? It’s obviously overcrowded with surfers, but these days even the number of photographers is nuts. How do you find your shot?
There’s a pecking order for photographers too, you can’t just go in front of everyone. You have to try to find different angles, find that little window between all the others. I have a friend that still goes out on the bodyboard just so that at least he’s a little higher than everyone else.
Sometimes it’s just me and one other girl with 20 guys, but I don’t think I get treated differently as a woman.
What are three most important things you incorporate into your training and preparation?
Of course swimming, if you’re going to be swimming then you have to swim.
I was running before I got hurt. I always hated running but I think it helps your lungs, makes you feel stronger and more ready.
Apnea training helps you so much mentally, to know your body and how much it could handle. When you’re in those situations you don’t want to be in, you’re kind of ready. Your body can handle so much, but sometimes you don’t think you can.
When you realized you really wanted to take this seriously, did your training change?
When I was swimming, I used to swim 4-5 hours per day. When I stopped swimming, I loved being active, but I wouldn’t go to the gym. But when I started swimming in the ocean I realized, ‘Man, I need to prepare.’ I don’t necessarily like training swims or runs, but I have to. I had to start being more conscious about that, I couldn’t just go play tennis, I had to go do my workout.
What’s currently your biggest goal with your photography? Is there a certain shot you dream of getting, or place you dream of swimming out?
Right now short term is just getting back to where I was physically. Long term, I would love to be able to do surf photography as my only job and survive.
I would love to swim at Jaws, I went to Tahiti this year but it wasn’t that big, I would really love to swim Teahupoo huge.
But because of my injury I’m not there physically and mentally. You know your body and how far you can take it and right now I’m probably at 50 or 60 percent and I’m definitely not trying to get hurt again, ever.
I was out at Waimea for four hours the last swell, and the next day I could barely walk.
Have you had a moment yet where you felt like you "made it," or are you still waiting?
Swimming at Puerto Escondido the swell where I got hurt, it was big and almost no one was out.
I was at times the only photographer, let alone the only woman. A lot of the big-wave surfers and photographers wrote to congratulate me, like Sachi Cunningham who swims at Mavericks. Greg Long wrote to tell me he’d only ever seen three photographers swim out there and that he’d never seen a woman. That was a big moment for me.
On a perfect day, what do you choose? Surf or shoot?
When it’s small I would surf, I get bored shooting smaller waves. When it’s big I shoot. I will never surf Waimea or Pipeline in my life.
Really, you wouldn’t surf Waimea? But you’ve done all the training to sustain the wipeouts, what’s holding you back?
I’m scared of heights. [Laughs]
See Maria Fernanda’s work on her Instagram.