final composite

Kate Powell

Heidi: How many images did it take to composite this image?
Kate: The final composite is comprised of 29 separate photos, chosen from 1,500, and stitched together to create one seamless photograph.

How long did it take to capture those 29 moments?
Those 29 photos come from an entire day of shooting. The evening before, there were whispers of potentially epic conditions: “sand shaking Waimea,” a local friend told me. There was a lot of excited energy amid the community. I wanted to witness it—from beginning to end. My day began when the sky was still dark. By sunrise, the beach began to fill in with a crowd of onlookers. Soon after, the first surfer paddled out. There was no cheering, just the chatter of private conversations keeping track of the bobbing human. I claimed a stretch of guardrail along the highway and observed, camera at the ready. And there I stayed for 9 hours. By the time I left, the final few were exiting the surf and the sun was, once again, hugging the horizon.

How long have you been living in Oahu and what brought you there?
I have lived on Oahu for 8 months now. Prior to my move here, I was living and working on Catalina Island, employed as a marine science educator and scuba instructor with a company that provides hands-on marine science field trips for schools. When the pandemic was declared, we could no longer operate. It was devastating to be so abruptly uprooted from both my career and home of four years, but I am grateful to have stumbled across a silver lining. My move here was very serendipitous. Soon after leaving Catalina, a friend on Oahu reached out. I packed up what I had with me and landed on the North Shore. I was immediately drawn to the prospect of exploring a new marine ecosystem.

You picked up a camera at 13, studied marine ecology and became an educator, when did those two passions fully realize/intersect?
That particular convergence of passions has come to fruition in the last few years. The camera has held many roles in my life, but most recently it has become a tool that allows me the opportunity to encourage others to be curious about the natural world—particularly oceans. As a student of ecology, curiosity was my driving force. I chased great landscapes with my camera and questioned the interconnectedness of nature. As an educator, I saw students acknowledge their curiosity. I watched the smiles of kids as they played with algae or observed alien-like invertebrates. I made the transition into underwater photography here. I became comfortable in the ocean and, then, dedicated to it. All in all, I know this to be true: I have witnessed the impact of curiosity and it can be a powerful thing. This is what inspires my mission as a photographer.

The Waimea wave breaks 20+ footers consistently, what made this condition ideal?
It was a combination of good things: little to no wind, a long period of swell, impressive wave height, and a decent swell direction. Lots of factors aligned to create these conditions. Some people have called it the “swell of the decade.”

How big (or small) is the female photographer surf community?
We are out there, just not nearly in the same numbers. During peak season, it was always very inspiring to see a female photographer hop into the water with a surf housing. Often times, it seemed like most of the professional camera setups were operated by men. That being said, I felt very welcome.

Tell us about the backstory of the image from Modern Huntsman.
As it so happens, this image was also taken at Waimea—four months earlier. As I approached the water that summer’s day, there seemed to be a new rock formation in the shallows. Except, it moved: a massive school of young big-eye scad, I later learned, had made a home of the bay.

For weeks they meandered around together, mouths opened wide, sucking up plankton. In the beginning, the school was dense—a fluid wall of fish several feet thick. A dive into its center mostly obscured all sunlight. Eventually, though, the predators arrived. Mackerel tuna struck from below, barracuda from above. An endangered monk seal fed on scad for weeks. Humans, with their long-poles and dedication, fished from sunup to sundown. The population of scad slowly dwindled as nature ran its course. This photograph is from the beginning, from when the immense shadows of bait eclipsed the sun.

What are you working on now?
Currently, I am prepping for a 9-day diving expedition to the Revillagigedo Archipelago. These uninhabited islands protrude from the sea nearly 300 miles away from continental land, off of Baja Sur to be exact. The ecosystem out there is something to be admired. Born from volcanic activity at the convergence of some very productive currents, the region boasts incredible marine biodiversity. I will be continuing work on a photo series that I began over two years ago on my first trip out there.

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