From concussion to capturing big-wave surfing’s heaviest moments
By Tyler Fox
The horizon went black and, with nowhere to run, Derek Dunfee knew he was in deep shit. I’m not talking a Chihuahua tootsie roll—I’m talking a St. Bernard steamer. It was 2012 at a spot known as Cloudbreak in Fiji, and a herculean swell was rearing its head with lines stacked up to the horizon. Michael Phelps couldn’t have paddled his way out of this situation. Like a Yosemite waterfall, the 30-foot wall of water came cascading down with Dunfee directly in its path. The lip landed directly on Dunfee’s head with a thunderous boom!.
After a violent thrashing, Dunfee finally broke through the foamy surface, dizzy and disorientated. He bear hugged his cherry-red 9-foot gun and proceeded to get trampled by two more monstrous walls of white water. After the dust settled, Dunfee floated in the channel completed exhausted. Between involuntary spurts of vomiting, he strained to raise his arm to flag the nearest boat to come to his aid. It was the worst beating of his life.
I’ve shared many sessions at Mavericks with Dunfee and seen him endure wipeouts that would put an end to most mortals. Hearing about this near-death experience sparked my curiosity about his recovery and also about how photography has helped shape this soft-spoken legend from La Jolla.
Most people know you as the hard-charging big-wave rider who regularly throws himself over the ledge at places like Mavericks, Puerto Escondido, and Jaws. Tell us about your evolution into photography.
I’ve been traveling with cameras since I was a kid. I travel a lot by myself, so I wanted to share my experiences. Back when I was a sponsored surfer, I couldn’t afford to bring a photo or video guy with me, so I would document all of my trips. I’d buy my surfing footage and then make my own edit with all of my B-roll. I had a blog for a while, but I recently made it into more of an official photography website (derekdunfee.com). I have been taking photos and writing articles for surf magazines for over 10 years. I like to create all of my own original content. Normally, I bring a camera and switch off between surfing and taking photos. I like to surf early and when the crowd gets on it, I grab my camera.
You actually built your own water housing. What was the purpose of making your own equipment?
About nine years ago, I broke my leg really bad surfing big waves. I was doing a lot of photography at the time and also collaborating with Del Mar Housings [in San Diego]. I had a month or two out of the water and I couldn’t work on my feet. Del Mar Housings offered me a desk job and said I could build my own water housing, or work it off. I spent two months making other housings and working on my own. That was a huge turning point in my water photography. I learned a ton about different lenses and ports, and what other photographers were using.
How did your near-death experience in Fiji change the course of your life?
Well, I almost drowned that day. I was dizzy and nauseous for three months. I thought I was losing my mind. I had never had an injury that made me rethink surfing big waves until this one. Mental health is most important to leading a happy life, and I didn’t want to do anything that [could] put me back into that dark fog bank. At the time I wasn’t sure if I was losing my memory or feeling the long-term impact of the bad concussion. It was a scary time. I contemplated quitting big-wave surfing so I could live a longer, happier life. Living with concussion symptoms can be a very confusing and unhappy time. Concussions majorly impact your mood and emotions, and it took few years to feel normal again.
Now I have a different approach to big-wave sessions. I normally have both my camera and my surfboard and make the call when I’m in the water. If it’s not perfect or the wind comes up, I’ll grab my camera and shoot—especially if the wind is [from the] south or super offshore. I’ve had a few bad wipeouts in those conditions, so I’m a little wiser now, not to mention I train really hard to be able to endure those wipeouts.
Tell us about DEKKA.
DEKKA is a nickname I’ve had for a while, but it’s also the name of my big-wave photography zines. I’ve made three different color-printed zines, about 60-72 pages each, all featuring my big-wave photography. Volumes 1 and 2 [feature] 10 years of big-wave photography, from 2004 to 2014, and Volume 3 [has photos from] the past three years. A lot of photographers only focus on the high action, but I also include photos of the big-wave lifestyle. I’ve gone to most of the popular big-wave surf spots in the world, and I like to shoot the big-wave parking lots, the beach and paddle out, surfers’ cars and houses, and the crazy travel part of it. It sucks traveling with big boards—it can be so expensive and a huge pain in the ass.
What’s next for you?
I’m ready to keep pushing my photography. I want to travel to all the big-wave surf spots this winter and shoot and surf. … I’m making DEKKA Volume 4, and I already started to shoot for that. I want to get more photo work, hopefully working with more surfers and their sponsors. I want to read and write more and keep creating. I’ve made a few other magazines/books that I’d like to print more copies of, for example a cookbook, a photo book on surf and localism graffiti, and another one on a well-known fish market and its employees. A few years down the line I want to make a coffee table book with all of my photos and stories.
If you could sit down and have a one-on-one chat with anyone in the world, who would it be and why?
A few years back, my favorite big-wave board flew out of the back of my truck just outside of Santa Cruz. When I turned around to pick it up, someone stole it. I had a lot of my friends in the area share it on social media in hopes of finding it. No luck and it’s still missing. It was the first big-wave gun I had ever shaped, and the board [with which] I won my 2009 XXL paddle-in wave at Mavericks. I’d love to ask that asshole what he did with my surfboard, then I’d probably punch him.