CNN Photos

Surfing ‘the world’s heaviest wave’

Just off the coast of the French Polynesian island of Tahiti, the waves at Teahupoo are commonly referred to as the heaviest in the world.

They're also among the most dangerous, breaking over a razor-sharp reef just a few feet below the surface.

Photographer Tim McKenna has witnessed surfers braving the deadly conditions since he first visited the spot in 1996. During a big swell, the athletes are pulled into position by a personal watercraft.

“When shooting Teahupoo on the tow-in days, you fear for the surfers on practically every wave,” he says. “Especially when they wipe out or don't come out of a tube.”

He has also feared for his own life.

Even when using a telephoto lens from a boat in a safe area, engine problems and a strong current can lead to trouble.

He can be caught off guard by the biggest set of the day and confronted with an enormous wall of water, he says.

“Then the only solution is to dive underneath the wave to get to the other side, hoping it won’t clip you underwater and smash you against the coral reef.”

Although the powerful waves at Teahupoo can tower over 30 feet high, McKenna says it’s the thickness of the wave and the perfect barrel it produces that set a new standard in surfing.

Last week Australian surfer Mick Fanning held onto his No. 1 ranking in the ASP World Championship Tour after winning the annual Billabong Pro Tahiti contest.

But McKenna says the most impressive waves are often conquered outside of the professional events.

“I am fascinated by the beauty and power of nature,” he says. “I like to capture the rare moments when nature puts on her show.”

- Brett Roegiers, CNN