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A Surf Photographer Reflects on the ‘Elemental Craziness’ Capturing the Pacific as Yesterday’s Tsunami Washed Ashore

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– Eric Lee Burch is an eighth-generation Mendocino County resident who spent 15 years as a photojournalist and graphic designer for The Willits News, Lake County Record-Bee and The Ukiah Daily Journal. His work has also appeared in the Willits Nickel & Dime, The Mendocino Travelers Guide and 101 Things to do in Mendocino County. Though Mr. Burch lives a somewhat quieter life these days, he continues to write and shoot photos; capturing the essence of Mendocino County and California’s north coast. – 

The Pacific’s odd rumbles and tumbles as yesterday’s tsunami washed ashore
[All photographs provided by Eric Lee Burch]

I used to be the biggest meteorology nerd. When I first started surfing the only thing I had for somewhat reliable weather and wave information was the weather band channel on our scanner at home. SURFER Magazine used to do hard copies of their Surf Reports; which were 8×10 “booklets” giving detailed (for the time) information on regions around the world. Each of California’s north coast counties had their own sections, and of course, I bought them. After the internet became way more mainstream, sites like Stormsurf, Surfline and a few other rinky-dink forecasting pages were like gospel; especially Stormsurf. In fact, I still have my Surf Reports and a printed version of Mark Sponsler’s meteorology tutorial. It was a lifesaver back in the day.

Eager to fuel my continuing obsession with surf photography, my bookmarks have been nothing but weather sites. This weekend was supposed to be solid again with favorable conditions, thanks to the lingering high pressure. I wasn’t sure what day would be better though, Saturday which was bigger but a little less clean, or Sunday. According to the National Weather Service, Sunday could be a peach. I texted some friends on the coast to gauge their plans. My son was down to go shoot surfing too. And I could only choose one day. Signs pointed to today.

Little did I know that there was some seriously elemental craziness happening in the Southwest Pacific. Apparently, an incredibly violent volcanic eruption lit up the area around Tonga, and with it, a tsunami was created. Since the Pacific Ocean is like a big fishbowl and it is also the ring of fire, from time to time tidal waves push forth across the sea. I don’t know exactly when it happened, but when I woke up early this morning to pee and check the buoy, I didn’t venture much farther than thinking I had a little more time to sleep.

Arlo and I pulled into the parking lot at MacKerricher and my phone blew up. So many people were hitting me up about the tsunami advisory. I still had no idea where it was coming from though. At the same time, watching the ocean roll up to the very edge of the black sands at MacKerricher and knowing that the morning tide was also pretty high, kept me aware of conditions and the surroundings I had thought about venturing off to with Arlo.

Even without the lingering threat of larger-than-normal seas, it was a pretty odd morning. Clouds above and the sun’s light created an almost muted color palette. Once the sea mist began to die down and the clouds parted ways, it did turn into a beautiful day. Arlo was tired from me getting him up early. I was feeling a little off myself. Come to think of it, as we bounced around available radio stations on Mendo’s northern coast, I never heard anything about a Tsunami Advisory either. Oh well. So yeah, this morning felt a bit off kilter.

We returned to MacKerricher in the late morning hours and ventured out to Laguna and our shared favorite promontory, the “island.” This was the place to be!

By the time I drove us back toward Highway 1 an hour or so later, the State Park rangers had already blocked the westbound portion of Mill Creek Drive. From what I gathered, the advisory was still in full effect. Crazy.

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