Cold Water Mermaid
Bryanna Bradley splits her time in the Canadian ocean between her board and her camera. She’s unequivocally passionate about her female surf tribe, and depicting the girls of the Tofino coast as honestly, and beautifully, as possible. I chatted with her about impulsive one-way plane tickets, what she learns from the ocean, near-death experiences, why she settled on the Canadian coast, and how females can, and should, be empowering each other both in and out of the water.
#1 thing always in your backpack?
Dried mango, or maybe my camera.
Word/phrase you overuse?
‘Fuck’. My mom isn’t happy about it.
Colour of the ocean on a perfect day?
I think the diversity of the ocean is what
inspires me. There is no perfect colour;
it’s drastically different everywhere you go.
How long have you been surfing?
I’ve been surfing for 6 years. I unashamedly admit I started because of the movie Blue Crush…. it basically changed my life forever. I watched it when I was 12 and immediately went out and bought the same baby blue Billabong rash guard that Anne Marie (Kate Bowsworth) wore at the Pipe competition. I instantly had one goal in life & that was to learn to surf.
When I was 21, I was working in the news industry in Montreal as a photojournalist. I was feeling like I had chosen the wrong career path and was drowning in my work. I was too young to be working in such a harsh industry and I felt it was the time to fulfill my dreams of becoming a surfer.
So, I bought a one way ticket to Hawaii in the middle of the night. It was like all of a sudden I couldn’t wait another second. I originally left my job and home with the goal to get barrelled in three months and become a ‘surf photographer.’ Once I arrived in Waikiki, I ended up buying a long board and playing in 1 ft toe-high waves for months, hardly acknowledging my camera.
It wasn’t until I moved to Tofino 3 years later that I really began to consider shooting again. Oh – and I still haven’t been barrelled.
About moving to Tofino – why did you choose to settle there?
I’m originally from Ottawa, Ontario and have lived in Hawaii and Australia for short stints. But I’m so happy to call Tofino home now.
I became instantly infatuated with Tofino due to the beautiful landscape, the incredible community and the ability to be able to surf year round in Canada, of all places. Even though it can be tough in the winter months with the rough weather and freezing water temperatures, to me, this is paradise.
For me, Tofino’s surf scene really embraces their female surf community. There’s so much support in and out of the water, and I think after travelling to so many places where surfing for females can be intimidating and not supported, it’s important for me to be in a place where equality is prioritized.
You’ve talked alot about female surf communities, and your ‘female surf tribe’ – how are the girls you surf with important to you? How do you support & push each other?
It’s a unique community because of the nature of Tofino. We get an excessive amount of rain and the ocean is cold. To commit to the surfing lifestyle in Tofino is not for the faint hearted. This alone brings a really incredible variety of people together.
I don’t think I’d have ever tried water photography if it hadn’t been for the community of amazing females I’ve met since moving to Tofino. I’m not sure I would have had the courage to do it, without knowing all my girlfriends had my back in and out of the water.
This mindset also applies when we’re all surfing together. It’s so great being out in the water with your best friends calling you into waves, it makes you feel so much more confident and safe. Who doesn’t want a team of cheerleaders in the water with them, when things are feel a bit scary or overwhelming?
Is that why your surf photography is mostly focused on females? To document that scene and community?
I think shooting mostly females came naturally to me due to circumstance and luck. When I first moved to Tofino, BC, there were a handful of amazing male photographers that were focusing on all the talented male surfers in Tofino. But I was spending so much time in the water, surfing with all my girlfriends, so inspired by all this raw beauty of the background… but confused as to why no one was focusing on the females. You know, they make up half the lineup in Tofino. So the next summer I came back with a water housing…. and the rest is history.
My main goal is not only to share the beauty of this place I get to call home, but I want females to feel liberated the same way the men are when they are surfing. I want the female surfers in Canada to feel valued as athletes, the same way men are. Surfing isn’t necessarily easy in Canada with the tough conditions, and I think because of that, it’s important for the female surfers to be recognized.
What draws you to spending long hours out in the ocean, both on the board and off it?
I’m not sure I can articulate my connection to the ocean, but I’m actually really happy with that – if I could, it wouldn’t be as intriguing to me.
What I do know, is the ocean often gives me what I need depending on the day. There’s always a lesson I learn from spending time in the water, if it’s from pushing and scaring myself swimming into waves that are bigger than I’m used to, or if it’s paddling out when it’s practically flat and taking a few deep breaths. The ocean constantly brings perspective to my life, and for that I’m always thankful.
Do you prefer to be shooting, or actually surfing? How do you choose?
It absolutely depends on the day. When I’m shooting, I find it’s because I want to share the beauty I see and experience when surfing, with everyone. I get to capture small moments of the beautiful people in my life amongst the most insane backdrops. I get to create something and share it with the world.
Surfing is where I get to reconnect with myself and the environment around me. It’s more so something I do for myself. Because of this, I usually shoot when the conditions are good and my friends are frothing, and my own surfing is often done solo, before or after a shoot.
Sometimes I’ll get into my wetsuit and swim until I can’t feel my fingers anymore, and then get out and grab my surfboard and go for a mini session after. But that’s a lot more difficult in the winter because it’s so damn cold, and 4-5 hours in the ocean just isn’t realistic.
What inspires & shapes your content?
I would say my experience as a surfer. All the beautiful sunsets and sunrises, the power of the waves, the glory of getting to the nose of your board, and getting to share all these moments with your friends… that’s what inspires me.
Any near-death experiences or crazy stories?
I have this great friend who’s always telling me that “big waves” are only in relation to what you’re comfortable with, so technically, it’s different for everyone. I feel this relates to any experience in the ocean.
Now, I look back at experiences that felt like “near death experiences” to me at the time and realize that with the confidence and knowledge I have now, those experiences wouldn’t affect me in the same way.
That being said, one time in Western Australia, while I was still very new to surfing, I became that tourist that went out in MASSIVE waves and basically drowned. I still have never experienced a hold down or rip like that day, and I didn’t go deeper than knee-high in the ocean for four months after it. I was actually pretty certain that my dream to surf was over. It instilled a lot of fear that I sometimes still have to work on overcoming, but I believe it made me a much more cautious and knowledgable surfer.
What drives you to keep coming back to your board, come rain, hail or shine?
Society is so calculated and everything is so determined and defined, it’s such a beautiful relief to embrace yourself in the ocean without knowing exactly what to expect. It can teach you so much.