surf trip

portrait, feature, surf trip

Interview: Fiona Mullen, New Jersey Surf Photographer


We’ve featured the work of up-and-coming New Jersey photographer Fiona Mullen before, but after seeing glimpses of her new portfolio of work from trips to Indonesia and Australia, we felt now would be a good time for a proper chat.

ICH: Tell us about your trip to Indonesia - who did you go with and why?

Fiona: I first visited Bali in November 2016 - a short 10 day trip to Indonesia that had me itching to go back. This summer I traveled to Australia for an internship with The Mermaid Society, but I decided to dedicate the whole of May to a surf trip beforehand. I wanted to be somewhere close to Australia and cheap to live. Indonesia was the best option. I had no luck finding a surf camp to have me stay as a photographer, so I chose the comfortable route and decided to go back to Bali for the month. I met up with my friend Karson Lewis, who is a longboarder, on an island off Bali. It was nice to spend time with a fellow longboarder and photograph my favorite style of surfing. The trip was intended to be purely for surfing, but while I was there it seemed like we had days on end of flatness or well overhead swells that were more suitable for shooting. I had some seriously humbling swims on this trip! I also spent time battling crowds, dealing with bali belly, allergic reactions, and all the other unpleasant things that come with third world travel.

I now have a love/hate relationship with Bali. The place has changed so much even within the two years since I last went. The crowds are worse, the trash is worse, the traffic is worse, and I cannot see how the place is going to improve with the constant build-up in an already-crumbling infrastructure. Bali is an experience to say the least.


So, what was the inspiring moment of the trip?

The most inspiring moment was swimming at Uluwatu. I surfed it when it was smaller a few days prior, but it was a whole different beast on this day. I made the long walk down the cliff, through all the restaurants and shops with my housing and fins in hand. I swam while my friend Jake paddled out. Swimming out wasn't bad, but as the tide filled in the sets just got bigger and bigger. Lots of Brazilians, a few locals and others filled the lineup. A lot of guys come up to me and ask for my name and info to buy photos if I got a shot of them. I love people's reaction when I tell them I'm from New Jersey. It’s always a shock to people. Swimming back in was the sketchiest part, getting swept so fast down the sides of the cliffs and timing my exit through the keyhole before I got swept past it to the next beach, which is a long way down!

It was a magical morning. I found out the evening before that session that my grandma had passed away. She had been battling cancer for a year, and I was sad to not be home with my family. The last time I saw her, I was telling her about my upcoming trip to Bali and Australia. I swam out at Uluwatu the next morning, just as the sun was coming up. The whole session switched between sun and rain showers. I came out without a scratch, getting some of the most rewarding photos of my life.

That sounds amazing! For you, what’s the most enjoyable part of your creative process?

The most enjoyable part of photography for me is that you have these unexpected moments. I feel when I force my photography, it's never enjoyable. I hate planning things - it never feels as genuine. On this trip there were various days where I had no plan on shooting, but the stars aligned and the waves ended up being too perfect for me not to swim out. Surf photography can be repetitive, and there are so many people that do it these days, but I have learned that keeping my passion for it alive consists of not comparing my work to others’. Despite the current over-saturation of surf photography, I’m always thinking of ways to create something new and personal to me: I don't want the excitement of shooting surf to dwindle anytime soon!

How come you decided to study PR & journalism at Monmouth, rather than photography?

I started off planning to major in art with a concentration in photography, but I found it too fine art based for my liking. I felt like photography was something I needed to pursue on my own time instead of studying. Public relations and journalism seemed like the most compatible with what I was doing with my photography. I’m constantly collaborating with other artists or companies, and having to write, so a communications degree seemed like the best fit for me. Monmouth is a beautiful campus - just a mile from the beach, allowing me to pursue what I love while studying!

Can you tell us about any barriers you’ve had to overcome to pursue photography?

Being taken seriously as a young female photographer was hard. When I was 17-18 years old it was difficult to find ways to take photos and still make money. Starting out with photographing friends is great, but it could only take me so far. I’ve learned how to stand up for myself and not be taken advantage of. Doing work for exposure is always great, but it makes me happy when people see the value in my work and trust me to do photography work for a company or whatever it may be. You can't break into photography by giving away photographs; there has to be a balance between taking photos for your personal portfolio and photographing professionally. I am still learning all of this.


Yes - it’s a steep learning curve! You’ve often focused on coastal communities and surf culture. What do you find compelling about the ocean and surfing as a subject matter?

My time in Australia and New Zealand this summer reminded me why I spend so much of my time, money, and creative effort photographing surfing. I like to stay true to what I love and the water is where my mind is, so my photos reflect that. For my internship with The Mermaid Society, I lived with Sally (the founder) and her family after only meeting through FaceTime calls. It worked out perfectly. I had always dreamed of traveling to this end of the world, where surfers and ocean-minded people make up such a big chunk of the population. Coming from the northeastern US, where surfing year-round is almost unheard of to the average person, it was pretty cool how so many Australians prioritize surfing and time spent in the ocean in their lives. New Zealand was a quick solo mission - I rented a car and drove around the majority of the north island in a week. The place seems so raw and geographically distant from the rest of the world. The feeling is hard to explain, and I tried to capture that in the photos I was taking there.

So, what's the next big adventure you're planning and what would be a dream photo to come back with?

After doing a sailing trip in Australia, I am eager to get on a boat again. I am currently reading Swell by Liz Clark and it is really making me want to hop on a boat somewhere off Mexico and sail down the coast. I’m dreaming of a photograph that encompasses everything great about the combination of surfing and sailing!

Big thanks to Fiona for her time and the photos she shared with us here. To support her work, check out the new print store on her site!

feature, surf trip, surf session

Stephanie Gilmore - The Tempest

Monster Children just dropped a video called The Tempest, filmed in glorious technicolor in Indonesia with Stephanie Gilmore. It was filmed by Jon Frank with music written by Maurice Ravel and performed by Alberto Bof. It is beautiful and joyful and we suggest you watch it to get your week off to a good start...

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surf trip

Michoacán, Mexico

It being Spring and a very long time indeed since we last saw our swim shorts, we recently made a trip to Mexico to find some Pacific waves and pre-season sunshine. Being New Yorkers, we're not above a little base tanning, but a tanning salon is no place for two grown men with surfboards. 

We landed in Guadalajara and picked a line for the Michoacán coast, driving as fast as our feeble rental car could carry us, stopping occasionally to take photos and to sample the ceviche in Tecomán The report had shown the last shreds of a previous swell lingering for a shoulder-high evening session after the long drive. A fresh pulse swung into the coast the next morning and kept up for the next four days, easing slightly for a few days and then picking up again at the tail end of our visit. In short, we scored. We shared a perfect, peeling left point and occasional crunchy rights with a handful of friendly locals and a passing video crew from Vissla. For 10 perfect days.

As the sun began to climb in the sky each morning we would wait for the 'morning sickness' in the water to pass. Once the air had warmed and the wave settled, we would walk towards the point, first across the river mouth, picking our way over round rocks and then through a dense palm forest, littered with fallen coconuts. On some mornings we startled a nervous donkey tied up to a wooden fence by the beach, setting the creature off on a prolonged bray that echoed up the river valley. 

Eventually, we would emerge on the other side of the forest in a shady patch, dropping off water and something to eat after the session. We figured our way out into the water over seaweed-slippery stones and paddled out to the peak, marked by a huge cactus growing on the beach in front of the jungle. Then, for as many hours as our arms lasted, or until the sun had become so hot and high in the grey-blue above that the water offered no comfort, we surfed in glassy, peeling perfection.

Cam Richards - Vissla Team

Cam Richards - Vissla Team

The tiny village by the river mouth was peaceful and friendly, with a few small, family restaurants serving up ceviche, tacos, gringas and quesadillas prepared to perfection.  

Michoacán province has had a troubled and sometimes violent past due to the growing, manufacturing and trafficking of drugs to America, but the area seemed only mildly tense during our stay, with relaxed checkpoints on the roads and occasional patrols to the beach from Federales and even the military.

Almost the only downside on the whole trip (barring an episode with some seemingly undercooked octopus) was a long walk across hot rocks to access the point and the defensive line of bristling Pacific sea urchins waiting just beyond the rocky water entry. One errant step on the way in or out was a costly mistake we had all made several times by the end of the week. The wave was worth every urchin-spine. 

Above: The palm forest and unfinished shacks standing on the beach in front of the point; the wave itself, viewed from above on the curving coastal road of Michoacán.

Below: Local kids playing in the warm lake at the mouth of the river; Cam Richards picking a high line during an evening session. 

Cam Richards - Vissla Team

Cam Richards - Vissla Team

surf trip

Baja California Sur

Julien just came back from a trip to Baja California , Mexico. 4 days on the East Cape. A part of Baja that has remained under developed for the past 20 years, but might be changing in the near future with the new highway under construction.

For now, only one dirt road, poorly maintained, and your intuition will lead you to different surf spots. On the way you run into wild horses, donkeys and cows, and dozens of empty million dollars villas, most of which bear a "se vende" sign. Odile, a category 4 hurricane (on a scale of 5), severely damaged the peninsula in 2014, with winds reaching 140mph. It seems to have kept investors away, on the East side at least.

The drive is stunning, crystal clear water on your right and, on the other side, oddly sized and shaped cactus adorn a barren land. Most likely you will see only a couple other cars. 

People who actually live there, will drive to town once a week (Cabo San Lucas) to stack up on food, beers, purified water and other necessities that the ambulating food truck coming up there once a week won't supply. He only sells roasted organic chickens, avocados, eggs and mangoes, if they are in season. 

The most well known spots will gather less than a dozen people on a decent day. The typical pattern of glassy waves early in the morning / blown by 10 am remains true there. This leaves you 4 hours of great surf, from dawn to 105 degrees Fahrenheit. The afternoon surf is definitely an option, textured water, less people - if not empty, but still offering longer rides than any place on the East coast.

There is no world class wave here. There are better places to scout when Surfline announces a purple blob in the South Pacific. However, 300 yards rides, mellow crowds (aside from that old and grumpy American guy), empty beaches and the occasional barrel are not uncommon sights.

Baja California - Julien Roubinet 3.jpg

surf trip

Nicaragua Mission

Feeling like we needed work on our backside surfing earlier this year, Julien and I (both regular footers) decided to take a trip to the Pacific coast of Nicaragua with our friend Rory. "Nica" is known for fast, hollow beach-break lefts and, in the South at least, near-constant offshore winds. It would be the perfect training ground for New Jersey's heavy winter barrels and a refreshing break from wearing 5mm wetsuits. 

The dates set, we began watching reports in the South Pacific. An enormous storm promising seas of 55 ft+ would light up coastlines from Chile to Northern California, passing through Nicaragua just two days before we were set to arrive. More than we needed? Definitely. 

Having picked up a suitably rugged truck in Managua, we began our 10 day search for the perfect wave by heading to Salinas Grandes, a tiny village on the edge of a giant salt-flat, two hours North of the capital. We scored the tail end of the big swell which had flooded the hostel we stayed at the week before. Even the leftovers served us up a genuine baptism of fire, with sneaky set waves reaching almost double overhead and many un-makeable closeouts, most of which snuck up on us at extraordinary half-hour intervals. Predicting the carnage was impossible!

As the swell died down, we confirmed stories of a spot to the North, the Boom, which works better on smaller swells. The setup is a long beach with a series of diminishing A-frames working on sandbars close to the shore. No more long paddle outs and the promise of a morning of perfect glassy waves. 

After two hours of off-road driving and many wrong turns we turned up at Joe's Place, a gritty hostel buried in semi-jungle in the far North of the country. Over a late dinner in the damp, hot night air we encountered surfers who had literally abandoned their lives to surf this spot. Some had stayed there four months or even more. The atmosphere was eerie but exciting. We couldn't wait to hit the beach the next morning and get a taste. 

The Boom didn't disappoint, throwing fast, shoulder-high barrels in water so glassy the sets were almost invisible on the horizon. We enjoyed one of the best days of the trip, scoring a solid morning of fun waves and watching local rippers tearing up waves on seriously tore up old boards. 

Northern Nicaragua only blows offshore in the morning, so we decided to head South where the enormous inland lake, Lake Nicaragua, drives almost constant offshore winds, morning and night. We checked into a basic hostel in a small village called Popoyo, skirting the crowds and irksome private access at Nicaragua's famed Colorado's spot.  

Popoyo offers a number of different waves to suit various swells and conditions including an inner and outer reef, a sheltered wall-y left inside a long rock point at Mag Rock, hollow beach breaks in nearby Astillero and, the jewel in the crown of our trip, a seemingly endless left hand point called Lance's Left, accessible in the luxury of a boat or (as we did) a painful hike over a quarter mile of burning hot rocks which are exposed to scorching sunlight all day, followed by a long paddle out to the takeoff. It's worth every blister and aching shoulder - a perfect, wall-y left which worked like a charm on the final pulse of fresh swell which arrived on the last two days of the trip. 

Three boards and three bodies came and went in one piece. We found the lefts we needed, and then some, ate a ton of beans, rice and pancakes, and, most gladly of all we swapped wetsuits for board shorts just when New York's bitter Winter was delivering it's final cold breath. Score!