Issue 16.6: Dec. 2013 / Jan. 2014

Under the Sea

Story by Brian Berusch
Photos by Olivier Koning

It looks a little like the opening to a James Bond film: Two men click open black and silver titanium-coated cases—some as large as an upright bass, some the size of a laptop —as they maneuver around quickly and silently on a small powerboat anchored in a tranquil bay. Here in the waters off Waikiki, just beyond range of the shouting surf instructors and the beach bars piping out Jawaiian music, they fasten steel tubes together and prepare expensive-looking tech. Their mission: to map every nook and cranny on the ocean floor of one of the most photographed coastlines in the world to create images that no one has yet seen.

They’ve already had success using their skills to create arresting underwater/ above-water composite images of San Francisco Bay and Lake Tahoe. Their images hit at our natural urge to see the unseen, to know what’s “down there.” Seeing the rippling underwater dunes sweeping away from Alcatraz Island or the precipitous, ghostly cliffs extending below the surface at Tahoe’s Rubicon Bay offers a new perspective, a literal “through the looking-glass” experience. Now Chris Hill and Brent von Twistern are hoping to bring some of that visual magic to the sub-scapes of Hawai‘i.

 Von Twistern’s and Hill’s business cards read “Hydrographer” and “Artist,” respectively. You wouldn’t think a techie and a sculptor would be caught at the same cocktail party much less have formed an enduring friendship and successful business partnership. But a series of coincidences, a common vision and a spirit of entrepreneurship led them to their current project of creating alluring images of underwater landscapes — images that only people with their particular skills could produce.

Von Twistern is a respected underwater cartographer who travels the world refining systems used to map benthic landscapes, i.e., the sea floor. His clientele includes anyone who needs a detailed picture of underwater terrain: the military, bridge and port authorities, engineers, construction companies and, most recently, cities affected by floods, tsunamis or hurricanes. Along the way he’s modified the technology that enables him to do his work, making it lighter, sleeker, more functional.

Hill, for his part, is a highly sought-after sculptor; he’s the master planner for resorts like Disney—that’s his work you see in the carvings on building façades and in the artificial volcano at Disney’s new Aulani resort on O‘ahu. A “great day of work” for Hill is hanging off the side of a thirty-story tower etching out designs. Both avid outdoorsmen, Hill and von Twistern met in 2002 at a kayak race in Mississippi. They refer to that time as their “fish out of water” period, when Hill was teaching kids about art on a Greenpeace boat and von Twistern was working government projects.

“As soon as we started talking, I thought, ‘Hey, this guy is a lot like me, and we’re not like everybody else,’” says von Twistern. “I was burnt out on government work and decided I needed a month off. We decided to start what became ‘The January Journey’: We would embark every January on a different adventure and tap into our artistic sides—shooting photography, illustrating, painting. … It was all about defining what makes us happy.”

Being incorrigible entrepreneurs, the pair developed a product on their first January Journey: The Dojo Bag was a solar charger that held a digital camera, phone and so forth. They made a prototype and sold a bunch. When it was clear there was demand, the natural next step was to find investment, produce in China and go big. Neither of them so much as considered it. “It wasn’t what either of us wanted to do,” says Hill. “When there’s no fire or passion, you just have to keep moving forward.” By 2007, with a handful of January Journeys to various continents under their belts, the pair decided to set up a home base in Marin County and come up with something that would light their creative fire.

At the time von Twistern was mapping the Bay Area for a company that had rights to dredge sand for construction. He had custom-machined much of the gear he used for this process with independent engineers he hired along the way, and he had developed a set of sonar mounts — and the programming that makes them function —that made him one of the world’s most sought-after hydrographers. After work von Twistern would email Hill images of the underwater maps aligned with objects on the surface, like a buoy or other landmark. “They were captivating. They had this innate texture—the ocean floor—which reminded me of some sculptures of Chris’ I had seen,” von Twistern says. “So I started printing them randomly as mosaic images on canvas, and Chris would paint on them. We did some collage experiments, and then one day we got these images of underwater sand dunes with Alcatraz in the background. We’re looking at it and the light bulb went off.” When he merged the underwater imagery with surface photos, the composite took on an otherworldly quality that kept the mind guessing.

Shortly thereafter Hill found himself stationed in Orlando working on another Disney project while von Twistern headed to Tahoe to map the lake bed. Von Twistern again sent the images back to Hill, who would suggest angles for photography and added color and other enhancements.

Using the working title “Journey Around Happy,” which describes how their venture began , the two opened a gallery space at Incline Village in North Lake Tahoe. They set up makeshift booths at West Coast music and cultural events like Outside Lands in San Francisco that attract young, affluent crowds. The detailed images of underwater terrain paired with exquisite photography of known landmarks, plus artistic touches from Hill, hit a nerve with younger art collectors.

Tahoe and San Francisco Bay are interesting enough. But the real prize, they figured, was Hawai‘i.

Hawai‘i is the one destination to which the pair consistently return, both for work and for rejuvenation. Hill had once lived in Lanikai; von Twistern had mapped Pearl Harbor for the Navy and had fallen in love with surf culture. That they would bring their technical wizardry and aesthetic sensibility to map some of Hawai‘i’s most famous underwater landscapes made sense.

“More than anywhere I’ve traveled, people in Hawai‘i are so connected to the ocean,” Hill says. “Its habits, its color, the movement and what they can do within it. So to map the ocean floor here, which truly affects all of those things, seems like a wonderful place to share what can’t always be seen in such accurate detail.”

And so now we drift off Waikiki as von Twistern sets up the sonar mounts and prepares to create an image of the iconic beach, one that nobody has yet seen. Watching them work, it seems so obvious I wonder aloud why nobody’s done it before. Von Twistern laughs and pulls a sleek, powder-coated metal set of steel tubes from a case. “I invented this piece of equipment right here,” he says, beaming at the custom mount that holds and manipulates the accompanying $300,000 Echoscope sonar device. “Unless you work at a port or something, you don’t have access to this sort of equipment.” But not just this “sort” of equipment. What von Twistern is holding is completely proprietary, his own invention.

“When I was beginning as a hydrographer, I was working with something that wasn’t perfect. I thought, ‘I could do this better.’ So I hired an engineer, and we developed our own series of instruments. After Katrina the federal government decided the emergency response system was so overwhelmed that everything was re-evaluated. One of those things was consolidating data that was formerly collected both above and below water,” von Twistern adds. His device is in use at all the deep-water ports along the Mississippi River, ten systems in Louisiana alone. Its success has led to its use in the Panama Canal, military installations, ports and other places that require real-time underwater visualization. “And now here we are, out scoping the reefs and making art,” he grins, lowering the Echoscope over the side of the vessel.

To match the sub-scape to what’s on land, von Twistern uses what he calls “the third system”: computer software that positions and orients the sonar. Hill and von Twistern line up coordinates with imagery they shoot on the surface, which they say improves quality and accuracy. “It’s just totally real,” Hill says. “If you grew up surfing this break, staring back at the shoreline, Diamond Head, the lighthouse, other points of interest … who wouldn’t want a beautiful print of that in their living room with the actual sea floor mapped in great detail included?”

During the course of this week, the two will traverse lines— back and forth in a grid-like pattern—here in Waikiki, at Waimea Bay and the outer reef at Banzai Pipeline on O‘ahu’s North Shore, confident that people will want colorful images of the sea floor that creates some of the greatest waves on the planet. “The imagery of the reef at Pipeline was amazing,” von Twistern says. “The wave action that pounds the reef creates these mosaic patterns, producing some of the coolest sonar data that I have seen.”

Then again, a call may come that drags one (or both) of them halfway across the world. “It wouldn’t be the worst thing,” says Hill, looking at the sonar screen and adjusting the position of a tripod and camera. “I’ve always wanted to sail the Nile. But right now there’s no place we’d rather be than here.”