Frank Quirarte photographs the world’s heaviest wave and save lives in the process
By Neal Kearney
Frank Quirarte is not your average surf photographer. Instead of standing on the beach with a tripod, clicking away, his craft involves documenting Mavericks, one of the world’s heaviest waves, astride a Jetski—where he snaps photos and, when needed, uses his bravado and horsepower to assist in rescuing surfers in peril. The Pacifica-raised photographer has made a name for himself with this gutsy act. Twenty years ago, he forged a friendship with Mav’s pioneer Jeff Clark, who let him shoot photos from the channel in Clark’s inflatable Zodiac. Over time he became proficient behind the lens under the tutelage of established photographers such as Don Montgomery, Vern Fisher, and Doug Acton, gaining acclaim for capturing stunning images as well as for his lifesaving skills as a member of the Maverick’s Water Patrol.
“We didn’t have any safety out there back in the day,” says longtime Mavs charger Peter Mel. “Frank was one of the first guys to bring that safety aspect to Mavericks. He had the balls to get in the zone and get people out of harm’s way. The fact that he gets some amazing photos along the way is awesome. We’re lucky to have guys like Frank out there looking out for us.” Waves caught up with Quirarte to find out how he pulls off this impressive two-pronged gig.
Fearless Frank rushing into the belly of the beast for a much appreciated rescue
What is the most difficult part of shooting photos from aboard a jet ski?
It’s all very calculated—physically, mentally and technically. With experience I’ve learned to be in the right spot at the right time, taking into consideration all the hazards involved. Aspiring photographers show up out there with the most expensive equipment and top-of-the-line PWCs thinking they’re going to get the shot. They realize very quickly that that’s never the case. You need to be able to survive in a very harsh environment. The line-ups are so crowded with boats and skis these days [that] just getting an image without a boat or another ski in it is almost impossible. You have to get really creative and try to avoid getting run over or sprayed.
How do you manage to shoot photos and be prepared to go in for a rescue at the same time?
Timing wise it’s pretty simple. Most wipeouts take a few seconds to happen. That leaves you plenty of time to shoot the shot, stow your camera, and then set up for the rescue. I have it dialed. I have a little nest in the forward compartment of my ski. I open up the hatch, basically just drop the camera in, and then go in for the rescue.
What makes for a strong Mavericks shot?
You know it when it happens. Those moments looking through the lens and capturing an amazing drop or a spectacular wipeout or a gigantic wave—you know you’ve just witnessed and documented something special.
Some people are content taking photos of flowers and rock formations. How does shooting a force of nature like Mavericks compare?
I have some friends who [have] climbed the Himalayas to get the shot—and that’s a big rock—and others who have repelled down the side of mountain to take a photo of a rare succulent. So I guess it’s all relative, right?
What do you like to photograph other than Mavericks?
Just being able to get behind the lens now and make a living is always a blessing. In the age of digital photography, the pro photographer has been marginalized or wiped out. So other than weddings, I will shoot basically anything. But I still need to be challenged. Shooting big waves has created some excellent opportunities, like working on movie sets and commercials—which is always really fun. I shot the America’s Cup for ESPN and the City of San Francisco hired me to hang under the Golden Gate Bridge on safety cables to shoot images of some of their earthquake retrofits. Basically, if there’s a possibility of somebody going the emergency room, I will most likely be part of the shoot.
What makes a good photo, in general?
I like to walk away from a photo feeling something. It’s that simple. In the age of video, capturing a shot that can speak to you like that is definitely an art form.
Which photo in your portfolio are you most proud of and why is it special to you?
I have lots of favorites. If I had to choose I think it would be an image of Peter Mel I shot from the El Niño year, back in 1999. Quiksilver used it on the first Mavericks contest poster. It’s hanging in my living room. I get incredible satisfaction knowing that not only do I love the shot, but also that Pete gets to have his courageous moment captured and frozen in time.
(This article was first published in Santa Cruz Waves)