I returned from Iceland with a lot of memories, but none will stay with me longer than the events of this stormy February morning on Diamond Beach. I guess given how much of my life is spent chasing Nature’s most dramatic moments, every once in a while it’s good to be reminded of the suddenness with which Nature can surprise you to impose its uncompromising will. But still…
The wind was howling and sunrise was still nearly an hour away when Don Smith and I guided our workshop group out to Diamond Beach. In fact, it had been so cold and dark when we arrived that we’d hung out in the bus for about 10 minutes.
Our group had actually photographed Diamond Beach a couple of days earlier, on a sunny but chilly morning. The surf that day had been relatively benign, washing up a more-or-less predictable distance up the beach at regular intervals. On that visit we could wander among the ice chunks, advancing close enough to use a wide lens for close-ups of the waves washing around individual ice blocks.
The blocks of ice here, some as large as a small car, have calved from nearby Fjallsárlón Glacier, have drifted across Glacier Lagoon and eventually into the ocean, before being swept back onto this black sand beach to pose for our photographs. On that first visit the biggest concern was a slightly larger than average wave washing up over the top of our (nearly knee-high) waterproof boots if we somehow hadn’t paid enough attention to its approach. Wet feet might ruin your day, but they won’t kill you.
This morning, however, given the storm that had raged all night and the cold wind still blowing hard, we weren’t a bit surprised to find the surf frighteningly agitated. Each wave attacked the beach with an explosive vengeance, and no one needed to be told to give the ocean space. Making beach access even more difficult was the a very high tide that had crested less than an hour before our arrival.
The section of Diamond Beach we were trying to photograph slopes steeply, 30 diagonal feet or so down to the ocean. (Given the size and violence of the waves, it’s really impossible to say where the beach ends and the ocean begins.) Above this inclined beach stretches a broad and relatively flat plain of sand, elevated far enough above the water to provide the illusion of safety. On this morning we watched individual waves charge up the beach before petering out 10 feet or so feet from the top of the slope—some a few feet closer, some a few feet farther back, but none seemed to threaten the high ground we surveyed the scene from.
Bobbing in the surf and dotting the sand were the ice blocks we’d come to photograph. All of the best ice was down in the area under constant attack from the surf, but instead of walking down among the ice as we had on our previous visit, the group seemed content to put on longer lenses and stay in the safety of the elevated plain.
Given the day I’d spent with saturated socks following our previous Diamond Beach visit, on this visit I was very motivated to keep my feet dry. Planting my tripod several feet back from the edge, I attached my Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens to my Sony a7RIV and turned my attention to a pair of ice chunks a safe distance away. My first click came about 40 minutes before sunrise, when the sky was dark enough to stretch my exposures into the 15 to 30 second range, making it very challenging to avoid blurring the ice that shifted with almost every wave.
At one point I saw someone in our group venture down, close enough to the water to take a wave almost to his waist. Braced, with camera held high, he remained standing and came out laughing, but stayed further back after that. I went back to shooting, trying to time my exposures for the seconds between waves when my subjects were less likely to be shuffled mid-exposure. The image I share here was one of my earliest successes.
Waiting for an exposure to complete, I looked up and saw a human shape emerging from the darkness and heading my direction. It wasn’t until I heard the shape utter, “I went in,” that I squinted and realized I was looking at Don. And not until he got right up to me and repeated, “I went in,” did I register exactly what he meant.
He was dripping, head-to-toe, camera and tripod, with frigid North Atlantic seawater. Holy crap! With chattering teeth he gave me a quick summary of events. He’d seen a piece of ice he wanted to photograph, so after monitoring the waves enough to feel confident that he was safe (-ish), he’d moved down onto the sloping part of the beach to get closer. Once down there, he’d been so focused on making his shot that he hadn’t seen the large wave until it was on him. The wave came up to his waist, and just as he thought he might ride it out without going down, he was sucker-punched by a block of ice that sent him sprawling into the surf (turns out it left him a nasty bruise too, but I managed to refrain from suggesting that he ice it). Fortunately, this was our last morning there, so our suitcases were packed and loaded the bus, so it didn’t take any convincing to get him to return the bus to change into dry clothes.
My ice subjects had drifted away, so I wandered over to where a few members of the group were shooting comfortably in the “safe” zone, well back from the beach. Rather than feeling concerned about our safety, I considered Don’s mishap a one-off accident—a dedicated photographer a little too anxious to get the shot. I’ve been there, and I suspect most landscape photographers have as well at one time or another. So far, I rationalized, no wave had come close to our elevated sand platform.
About the time these thoughts were cementing in my brain, I glanced seaward and saw a massive, roiling wall of water charging my position. Usually when a wave approaches the first inclination is to backpedal, but this wave was on a completely different scale from any I’d ever encountered. Without conscious thought I turned and sprinted inland so quickly (picture George Costanza in a fire) that if my camera bag hadn’t been on my back, and my tripod in my hand, I’d have lost everything.
The wave caught up with me at least 50 feet back from the top of the sloping beach that just seconds earlier I’d believed was completely safe. By then it had lost significant momentum but still rose halfway up my calf (and just below the top of my very high boots). After retreating another 50 feet or so to dry ground, I turned and looked back toward the others and saw three people in the group down.
I planted my tripod and sloshed back through about 8 inches of water where there had been only dry sand just a few seconds ago. Fortunately, no one had been swept down onto the beach (and beyond) by the receding wave. By the time I reached them, those who were down were scrambling back to their feet. I looked around and saw that the others had managed to retreat far enough to remain upright, though all were some degree of wetter than they wanted to be.
After a few seconds to process what had just happened, pulled everyone from the beach and onto the bus. We stopped at Glacier Lagoon where there were bathrooms for people to change, but I think those who got wettest didn’t fully warm until we reached our hotel that afternoon. Once it was clear that we’d incurred no lasting personal harm, I took stock of the gear that suffered and learned that four cameras and lenses weren’t working. One of the camera/lens pairs returned to life later, but three were permanently demoted to paperweight status.
The images from this morning became an afterthought—I didn’t even think about them again until unloaded my card and saw that I had captured 10 frames before all hell broke loose. Many had too much motion in the ice, but it looks like I did manage to capture two or three worth processing—all variations on the same ice blocks with different wave action.
Born and raised in California, I’ve photographed and recreated at the beach more times than I can count. I’ve heard stories of “rogue” or “sneaker” waves, but this is the first time I’ve ever actually experienced one. Only after experiencing this wave do I realize that all those other large waves that surprised me were not the full extent of the potential risk, not even close.
Without getting too preachy (after all, you are reading advice from a guy who chases lightning), I just want to remind everyone to never take Nature for granted. Just because you feel safe, doesn’t mean you are safe. I tell my monsoon workshop students not to get too comfortable just because there’s been no lightning yet, that every lightning storm needs to strike first somewhere (and it could be here). And after this experience, I’ll certainly tell my ocean photographing students in Iceland and Hawaii that, no mater how many waves you’ve seen, the next wave could be several times bigger than anything you’ve seen so far. I know, because I’ve seen it.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.