Off the west coast of Ireland, some of the Emerald Isle’s best surfers slide into frigid Atlantic waters in search of epic waves. These talented and resilient surfers are faced with balancing their time in the ocean with the encroaching demands of their lives—and commitments—on land.
In the film Between Land & Sea, director Ross Whitaker spent one year following six surfers in the small town of Lahinch, Ireland, capturing their wild rides at sea and on terra firma. National Geographic Adventure spoke with Whitaker to learn more about this tight-knit surf community and what it’s like to film them in freezing Irish ocean temperatures.
What drew you to make this surf film now? Why Lahinch, Ireland?
We wanted to find a way into the community of surfers in Ireland that wasn't a retelling of how the culture emerged, but more a contemporary telling of the lives of surfers in Ireland. There are a number of surf towns along the Irish coast like Lahinch—Bundoran, Strandhill, and others—and it was a matter of settling on one town and using that town as a way into telling a surfing story. Lahinch is particularly attractive because it has changed from a very famous golfing village into a surf town and it is also in an area that is as beautiful and breathtaking as any in the world.
What is unique about surfing on the west coast of Ireland and the surfers that ride those big waves?
Surfing in Ireland is not to be taken lightly. It’s very cold and the landscape is very different to places like Hawaii, California, or Australia, which are the locations people think of when they think of surfing. I think the wildness of the landscape and the incredible waves generated create very dedicated surfers who put surfing at the very centre of their lives.
There are many surf films out there, but in Between Land & Sea you dig into the connection, and challenges, to both identity and day-to-day reality of being a big wave surfer in Ireland. Tell us more about that.
When I started, I wanted to get beyond the superficial and I hoped to discover some themes that could be universal so that the film could appeal to non-surfers, as well as surfers. It was during filming that I realised that the film was about the impact of the decisions we make in our young life, about how those decisions frame our life and about the moment when you realise that you can't change course. I've seen plenty of films or scenes that talk about how wonderful it is to choose to be a surfer and to take the road less travelled, but I realised that I hadn't heard much about the challenges that the decision causes. I found that fascinating and very relatable. So, I spent a year alongside the surfers, filming them on waves, but also at home with their families as they tried to survive in this very rural setting.
Wetsuits are a necessity to safely surf waves along Ireland's west coast.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY ROSS WHITAKER
The footage in the trailer is gorgeous. Tell us about filming in the bitter cold off the west coast of Ireland. What were the biggest challenges? Most surprising moments?
It's very challenging. Wearing the right clothes—lots of them—is very important. Perhaps the greatest difficulty though is the wind. Perched on a cliff, 400 feet above the wild Atlantic is not a great spot to try to keep a camera steady when the wind is howling off the ocean. We just tried to find spots that allowed us to huddle down and protect the lens. Finally, concentration is key. The whole process from paddling to catching a big wave to emerging from a barrel could take less than 20 seconds, so you can't look away and you can't be checking the phone.
How do you think audiences in and outside of Ireland will react to the film? Where can it be seen next?
I'm really interested to find out the answer to that question, and I guess I will soon! I think for international audiences, the scenery and waves might be more surprising because I don't think many people know just how good the waves are in Ireland. In the last few weeks, since we released the trailer and began to tour the film around Ireland, we have started to receive invitations to show the film all over the world, so the future holds many more international screenings and making the film available online.
Header Image: Big waves lure surfers into the cold ocean waters near Lahinch, Ireland. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY ROSS WHITAKER