When hurricane-strength gales blow south of New Zealand in the winter (which is summer here in Hawai‘i), they generate energy pulses that reach Hawai‘i’s southern coasts as waves. Most of that energy is released when the wave breaks on the shore, but under certain rare conditions, the water continues on, rushes up the beach and hits a sand berm to toss up an acrobatic spume of aerated fluff.
It happens in the blink of an eye, but photographer Cameron Nelson noticed the phenomenon at Mākena State Park on Maui’s southern shore. “It looked like dancing energy,” he recalls of the first time he saw the foam. “I thought it would be an interesting photo if I could just find a way to capture it.”
Ten years later Nelson can still be found lying on the sand at Mākena trying to snap high-speed stills of the frothy explosion from “a crab’s-eye view.” Easier said than done: The waves must be large enough to reach the sand berm but not so big they wash it out. The tide must be high enough to push the waves up the sand, which happens only on the couple of days around a full or new moon. The sun needs to be directly overhead to eliminate shadows, and the berm must be sculpted at the perfect angle. “You might have fifteen days a year when you can capture this, but the beauty of photography is you can take a one-second moment and sit in it for an hour.”
Nelson has dubbed that moment “the snow leopard” for its elusiveness, but when it happens he captures dynamic, organic forms that the naked eye would miss: humanlike figures that seem to dance, a carnival parade reminiscent of a Dalí painting, a twisting dragon rising from the sand. Nelson never knows what he’ll get, which is part of what keeps him coming back on those rare days, waiting patiently on the beach. But “if I ever get one that spells out ‘aloha,’” he says, “I’m definitely going to be done.”