Fish Tales: A Chat with Waterman and Surf Photographer Tom Servais

by Owen James Burke

TAHITI TUNA '06-19_1

(Photo Courtesy of Tom Servais)

When he’s not shooting or traveling, Tom Servais spends his spare time on the water preciously and appreciatively. Above is the yellowfin tuna that almost left him stranded off Tahiti at night.

Tom Servaisgrew up fishing and surfing in Florida throughout the 1960s. Like many creative minds of the time, he gave his pursuit of higher education a rest and moved west in 1973 took up photography. A few decades later, he’s taken more cover shots and full-page spreads in surf magazines than we’re willing to count, and continues to photograph some of the best surf that the world has to offer. We caught up with him before he took off on a trip to Nicaragua this past week. 

Scut: How were you first drawn to the sea?

TS: I grew up in Florida around Miami-Fort Lauderdale, and so I was around the ocean and I loved fishing, going to the beach, and started seeing surfing. I kind of got hooked on it from being down on the beach and seeing surfing in the early sixties.

Scut: What first influenced you to pick up a camera?

TS: I guess I had a little interest in high school. I did a project, and we made a little super 8 movie, a surf film about us going up a coast. I wasn’t really into photography that much. I did that one little project. I started taking photography classes when I moved to California because I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was 20 years old, and that’s kind of what got me started.

Scut: What’s your favorite ocean story?

TS: I always like to think about this huge tuna I caught by myself in Tahiti. I was in Tahiti and they were getting weird about camera equipment. It was a Saturday, they wouldn’t give me my camera equipment and they said I had to come and go through customs on Monday. So I didn’t have my camera equipment for a day, but they let me take my fishing equipment.

I have a little Zodiac boat in Tahiti that I leave with this family I stay with and decided I would go fishing for the day. So I went fishing all day, but I didn’t catch anything. I was casting for trevallies in the shallow areas and I was trolling a little bit around the birds. Then I caught a live bait — I was inside the reef — and took it back outside the reef, trolled it around. Nothing.

It’s five o’clock at night, I bring my bait in, and after three hours of trolling it around under birds, it was still very lively. I was like, how could this fish could not get eaten? Then I was just coming in and I was outside of Teahupoo, about a mile up the reef and a little bit upwind, and I saw this bird pile. So I went and circled around the bird pile with a feather and I got hit. I fought this tuna for like an hour. I have this little 8-foot zodiac with an 8-horse, so it’s this really small little thing and it’s getting dark and I’m by myself.

So finally I saw it was a tuna — I’d thought maybe a shark grabbed something that I’d hooked that was smaller or something — but it was a nice tuna and I got it to the boat, but I accidentally punctured the boat with the gaff, and I pulled the fish next to the boat and air started going out. I got the fish in the boat and it was the biggest tuna I ever got. I fought it for an hour on 40-pound test. Then I started zooming back toward Teahupoo and the boat started going kind of slow. I looked back and it was full of water. But I was going downwind and down-swell — I never go the opposite way down the reef. I always go upwind so if I have a problem I can get blown by the pass. It was almost dark and there was a bunch of surfers for the event, going back in this big dinghy. They had a big tender boat for the event so these guys helped me out and drove me back to the harbor, dropped me off, towed my boat and took the engine and unloaded everything off the boat because it was half-deflated, you know.

Then the funny thing is, this Tahitian guy takes the tuna on the back of the deck and goes, ‘hey, can I clean it for you?” I go, “Sure.”

He wanted to gut it, so he started. All of a sudden I see him reach over with his hand and he goes, “Here’s the heart. Do you want to eat it?” I said, “No thanks, you can have it, actually, for cleaning my fish.” So, he just plopped it right down, right away like it was a delicacy, or I don’t know…—

Scut: I actually just ate my first tuna heart in Fiji.

TS: Where were you at?

Scut: Kadavu Island.

TS: I’ve been there. I go to Tavarua a lot, and I do a lot of tuna fishing there. I haven’t caught anything over a hundred pounds, but you know 20-75 pounds, and they school and it’s fun, because once they start feeding you can catch them on popper plugs.

Scut: That’s about my favorite thing in the world to see. Where’s your favorite place to shoot if you’ve got one?

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Tommy Carroll at Pipeline (Photo: Tom Servais/A-Frame)

TS: I’d have to say pretty much anywhere the waves are really firing. But I like shooting in Hawaii a lot and I like shooting in Fiji and Tahiti a lot, and I really like J-Bay in South Africa, but I’ve shot more of my photos in Hawaii, Fiji and Tahiti than anywhere else. Teahupoo is hard to beat on a good day, except there are so many other photographers and so many boats nowadays.

Scut: Who’s your favorite surfer to shoot?

TS: Overall, my favorite surfer, period, is Tommy Carroll. He was a long time ago, and I’ve just been stubborn and don’t want to give up on him as being my favorite surfer. Nowadays, I love shooting with Kelly. All the great surfers are great to shoot. I love shooting with Joel Parkinson. Kai Lenny is a new, young kid that’s like an all-around waterman. He surfs Jaws and he standup paddles. He’s a 5-time world champion standup paddler already. He’s 21 and he’s really good to shoot. I’m going on a trip with him [to Nicaragua] in a couple of days and I’m really excited about that.

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Tavarua Island, Fiji (Photo: Tom Servais)

Scut: What’s the best thing about the ocean?

TS: When it’s clean and beautiful. I’m not the kind of person that has to get in the water everyday. When the water’s cold, I don’t enjoy it as much as when it’s warm. If the waves are really good…if it’s cold, if your feet are getting numb after an hour, whatever temperature that is, I don’t like it that cold. If I’m warm in a 3/2 full suit, I don’t mind surfing in that kind of water. When it starts getting below 60 degrees, the surf has to be good.

But, I started shooting photos so that I could go fishing, surfing and windsurfing and all those kinds of things. So, I’ve done a lot of sports around my job. Since I wasn’t a professional athlete (I wasn’t talented enough to do that) I figured photography was the next best thing. I grew up around the ocean — so it was from fishing and being in the warm water in Florida and diving and snorkeling a little bit. Sometimes the ocean’s very inviting, and sometimes you don’t want to go near it.

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“Nightmare” — This wave was said to have dislodged boulders on the reef and sent them flying.

Scut: What’s the most horrific thing that’s happened to you in the water?

TS: Two-and-a-half years ago on Christmas day I was on the back of a jet ski and almost got cleaned up by a 40 foot wave in Oahu on the outer reef, so that was pretty exciting. My jet ski guy was really good — he’s a lifeguard at Waimea — he’s one of the water patrol guys at the Eddie contest, but he presses the envelop. I didn’t know why we were inside so far, messing around with these 12-foot waves that they were thinking they were gonna ride. We had two jet skis and then all of a sudden we turn around and there’s this wave we can’t get over and we had to outrun it. We were lucky to outrun it because it was so glassy. If it was bumpy, there’s no way we would have been able to outrun the thing. It would have just mowed us down. I’m not really comfortable — I’ve been out at small Waimea, but I’ve never really gotten a 20-foot wave on my head, so I don’t know if I could handle that or not yet. It could be drowning time.

Scut: How have things changed since you started out?

TS: It’s gotten so different from when I shot film and I’d go on trips and you’d just put the film in the bag and you’d go have fun when you weren’t shooting photos. Now digital is so much more work and everybody wants everything right away. There are smaller magazines, less print magazines, and more web stuff that doesn’t pay as much.

It just seems like it’s a lot more work than it used to be. I’m spoiled, I don’t mean to sound like I’m complaining, but it’s just a lot more work and you make a lot less money. So, there are some guys that are still doing good from surf photography, but I think there’s less money being spread around to the photographers and there are a lot more photographers out there trying to do it…you’re still competing against an army of people out there now, because everyone’s sending their stuff everywhere and a lot of people are happy just to see their photo on a website, like Surfline or something.

Everybody wants to be a photographer, so I guess I picked the right job.

Scut: And got in there at the right time.

TS: I was super lucky. Me and my friends that are the same age as me that have been photographers in the surf industry were just super lucky to work at a time when we were getting a lot of cover shots and photos were run in magazines that were big and fat. There wasn’t the internet, so when your photo was in a magazine, people would look at it for a whole month. Now they look at a photo for like 30 seconds and then they never look at it again, you know?

Scut: Do you have a piece of gear you’d like to recommend?

TS: Well, if you’re shooting out of boats, waterproof Pelican cases are pretty valuable in boats whether you’re fishing or surfing or whatever.

Scut: What’s your favorite knife?

TS: Benchmade knives, they’re pretty good. Two things are really important on a boat: a headlamp — a Petzl headlamp, and a knife. There’s a knife called the ESEE. My buddy’s got a couple of these and he wraps the handle with some sort of crocheted nylon rope around it.

Scut: What’s on the horizon for you?

TS: Really, hopefully winning the lottery one of these days so I can be a rich surf photographer that doesn’t have to worry about making money.

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(Photo: Kalani Robb)

Tom Servais calls California home base, but he spends just as much of his time in Fiji, Hawaii, and in Tahiti, where he keeps his inflatable zodiac raft for chasing tuna schools. 

If you’d like to see more of Tom Servais’ photography, have a look at Masters of Surf Photography: Tom Servais, and his website.

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