When Mike Jones wiped out on a skateboard six years ago his broken wrist made it impossible to pop up on a surfboard.
Still, he couldn’t stay away from the surf. So he borrowed his wife’s new camera and hopped on a Jet Ski in Cayucos, where he captured his buddies surfing huge waves.
After a friend from a popular surf site saw the photos, he encouraged Jones to sell them. And when Surfline offered him $400, Jones — with no prior experience or training—was suddenly a surf photographer who would go on to shoot big waves worldwide.
“I never really knew how much money you could make until people started giving me checks for a thousand, two thousand bucks,” said Jones, 36, who also owns the Azhiaziam surf apparel shop.
Currently, seven of his photos are nominated for prizes in the annual Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards — the premiere big wave awards event. And he’s had photos appear in major surf publications and advertisements.
“He hasn’t been shooting that long, compared to a lot of guys who do it for a living,” said friend Dustin Ray, who is nominated for Billabong’s Monster Tube award thanks to a Jones photo. “And the quality of his stuff is right up there with them.”
While Jones started shooting still photos somewhat recently, he was shooting surf videos with Ray as a teen.
“I started videotaping when I was like 13 or 14,” he said.
It was a fun hobby, but he never planned to do anything with the videos.
After graduating from Morro Bay High School, the Los Osos native wound up serving four years in the Navy (allowing him to surf Japan) before earning a psychology degree.
“After I graduated from Poly, I was working in psychology, making eight bucks an hour driving 15 schizophrenics in a passenger van up the Grade,” he said. “I was basically a servant, a maid. If they made a mess, I’d clean it.”
Even before entering the surf industry, he sold stickers bearing the name Azhiaziam (pronounced “as high as I am,” a reference to aerials performed while surfing).
“I wasn’t planning on starting a company — I just thought it was a cool name,” Jones said.
While working his day job, he started printing shirts with “Azhiaziam” on them. And when it was clear he didn’t want to work in psychology any more, he decided to start a surf apparel business, which he runs with his wife, Briana.
“I was already doing Azhiaziam stickers and a few shirts here and there, and people were always asking for stuff,” Jones said. “So I thought, ‘I’m gonna try this.’”
When he started shooting big wave photos, he posted them to his Azhiaziam.comWeb site, helping generate traffic. Then, as a way to further advertise his business— his primary source of income — he sent photos to Surfline with his Web site address on the photo credit.
As the photos became more popular, Jones began paying his way to famous big wave spots, like Pe’ahi (also known as “Jaws”) in Maui and Todos Santos in Mexico. He’s also photographed surf in Indonesia and Bali. And in December 2007, he shot photos at the Ghost Tree surf spot in Monterey. It was the biggest day the break has ever been surfed.
“I couldn’t believe what I saw,” said Jones.
It was on that 50-foot day that big wave surfer Peter Davi drowned.
“He was sitting by us all day in the channel,” Jones said. “He was hanging out with the photographers for probably six hours.”
For a while, Jones merely watched others surf the big waves. A wave even half the size of the one that killed Davi can be treacherous.
“I wasn’t a big-wave surfer,” Jones said. “I didn’t want to die out in the ocean.”
Then, a year after shooting big waves, he decided to let someone pull him into 10-foot waves with a Jet Ski. Grabbing a tow rope, he found, was easier on his wrist than pushing up on a board.
Still, there was the potential for hard wipeouts — getting crushed by massive walls of water, then getting held under.
“But after seeing so many wipeouts and so many people just popping up and being fine ” Jones began. Now, friend and longtime local tow-in surfer Van Curaza sometimes pulls Jones into 20-foot waves with a Jet Ski. Other times, he’s the focus of Jones’ photos.
While those photos show the amazing feats Curaza, 47, has accomplished in the water, the exposure he gets—he is also nominated for a Billabong award— is a touchy subject. Local big-wave surfers have long feared that outsiders will flood the area after seeing photos of giant, surfable waves here.
“In surfing, the serenity comes from surfing with a few people and good waves where the energy is really mellow and the waves are good, where everyone can enjoy their time in the water,” said Curaza, who first started tow-in surfing here in the ’80s. “And when you mix 25 to 40 different personalities, most likely there’s not going to be a serene environment.”
At the same time, he said, nice photos are good for the surf industry, which is important to people like Jones and Curaza, who runs the Van Curaza Surf School in Pismo Beach.
Jones has caught some grief from local surfers about his photos — some have even threatened to boycott his products and the stores that sell them. But, he says, he won’t back down.
“I’m not ever going to tell them they can’t do anything,” Jones said. “I’m not going to let them tell me I can’t do something.”
His friend, Ray, said the criticism is unfair given that Jones is a lifelong resident. Besides, while most locals might know where his photos were taken, Jones has been careful not to reveal the locations of local big-wave breaks.
“He’s very respectful with not naming the spots,” Ray said. “And nobody owns the place.”
Jones, who recently moved his Azhiaziam shop to Morro Bay, is constantly watching the swells — especially this winter, when big waves have been unusually abundant.
After most big days, he posts photos on his site. (He also has a YouTube site, which just surpassed the 4 million views mark.) Sometimes the photos feature local guys, but he also has shots of big wave legends like Laird Hamilton, Brad Gerlach and Ken “Skindog” Collins.
Being among the world’s biggest waves is sort of surreal, he said.
“It’s like an out-of-body experience.”