Experience: I was out at sea when a tsunami struck
In December 2004 I had just become a professional photographer and was working on a project about communities who live on the sea, known as sea nomads. I was living with members of the Chao-Ley tribe on a small island within the Tarutao National Marine Park in southern Thailand. I had a beach bungalow and spent a month getting to know the nomads. We didn’t share a language, and relied on sign and body language to communicate.
I went out to sea with them regularly. The view was paradise. There was the bright blue sea, and dotted on the horizon were small islands that you could see clearly, even though they were 15km away.
On the morning of 26 December, I was due to set out with a group of six Chao-Ley fishermen in a small long-tail boat. It was about 8am, and the sea looked different; sterile and tinged with a grey-silver colour. The water was totally still. I could tell from the way the fishermen were behaving that something wasn’t right. They seemed to be discussing whether or not we should set off, but the eldest, who operated the boat, gave the go-ahead.
About 20 minutes after our departure and a few miles out in the open sea, one of the fishermen pointed to a small white spot far in the distance. We kept an eye on it. It looked like a football. It was getting bigger and bigger very quickly. We had no idea that this was a tsunami wave speeding through the ocean like a tornado.
With a big wave, you would usually try to get as far out as possible into the open sea. The deeper the water, the weaker the wave. But we weren’t far enough out to be safe, nor close enough to the shore to make it back before the wave would hit the land. We were stuck.
When I realised that the nomads were afraid, I began to feel really scared. These men were effectively born on the sea. At some point the elder, the captain, took control. No one panicked or screamed, but they moved quickly. The captain told the six of us where to sit, based on our weight and height, so we would balance out the boat. He asked us to hold on tight.
My camera was in my rucksack. With the wave just a few hundred metres behind us, I wanted to capture the scene, but I couldn’t. Any movement would imbalance the boat, but I also felt paralysed by the thought of imminent death. I thought, “What’s the point in taking a picture if we are about to be washed overboard?” I was sitting on one of the benches in the middle, with my back facing the five-to-seven-metre-high wave. I took one last look over my shoulder at this monster that was about to hit. I took a very firm grip of my seat, closed my eyes, clenched my teeth and in my mind said goodbye to the world, my family and friends.
Suddenly there was a huge noise and a jolt. The wave had hit the boat, but in the split second of impact, the incredibly skilled captain got it right. He managed to swerve us up and on to the wave. We were surfing it for a few seconds. Then the boat glided from the tip of the wave down behind it, into safe waters. Astonishingly, no water splashed into the boat, and no one went overboard. He had saved us all.
The adrenaline shooting through my veins made me feel completely insane. Our eyes and mouths were wide open and everyone let out heavy sighs. We stayed at sea for another hour or so and then made our way back to the shore. On the island we could see some damage, but nothing compared with what we later saw had happened in other parts of south-east Asia.
Surviving gave me a deep understanding of how short life can be. I’ve been going back to south-east Asia almost every year. The photographic project has become a homage and thank you to the people who saved my life. The picture I wanted to take on the boat remains “the one that got away” – I think every photographer has one. But mine changed my life.
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