Mermaid of the Arctic

Few venture as far as Iceland to capture its extreme surf. Aquatic photographer Megan Hemsworth and the new Land Rover Defender take on the challenge

5 minutes

Megan Hemsworth has such a deep and passionate connection with the sea, you could easily imagine that saltwater runs through her veins. Hers is a life ruled by oceanography – tidal currents, daylight hours, weather systems and wetsuits.

But even someone with Hemsworth’s deep-ocean experience can face challenges so extreme that they steal the air from your lungs. Clad head-to-toe in neoprene, she’s clinging to the black rocks of the Icelandic coast, buffeted by the white spray that fills the air around her.

In a moment she will launch herself into the freezing sea, a sea that can kill in minutes without protection, in an effort to capture that most precious of things – a moment of beauty.

Twenty-three-year-old Hemsworth is a specialist photographer with a unique relationship to water.

She doesn’t just take pictures of activities happening on the water or photograph under the water.

Instead, she takes herself into the sea – just her and her camera – to explore the interplay between the sea and the sky, the contrast between the energy and the calm.

She’s travelled the world to capture surfers off coasts from Albania to Costa Rica.

Her work has seen her spend hours with her camera strapped to her left wrist whilst she treads water, watching and waiting for that perfect wave, that perfect shot of surfer and sea working together as one.

“The sea has always been where I’ve felt at home. I can’t go more than a few days away from the water, even now,” explained Hemsworth earlier on the way to the coast.

“I need to see the sea, to be in it, to swim in it and feel the water against me. It’s what relaxes me and stimulates my mind.”

Hemsworth combined her love of water with her love of photography three years ago when she completed a project which featured a ballet dancer photographed underwater.

From there she decided to use the same technique to shoot surfers in the sea off the coast of her beloved Cornwall.

The images she captured from being in the ocean were so true to the relationship between surfer and sea that she started to build a following in the surfing community.

That acclaim then started to grow on social media. Soon, she was being booked to take on underwater jobs all over the world.

Taming the Icelandic seas

Iceland, one of the wildest and most dangerous places to surf, has always been high on Hemsworth’s bucket list of locations to shoot. The Nordic surf community is small and Icelanders have been raised to keep a respectful distance from a capricious sea.

Land Rover is supporting Hemsworth’s quest on this trip by providing a new Defender, ready to take on anything the land of fire and ice can throw at it. “I’m from a Land Rover family,” she says.

“Growing up, I lived on a farm in the middle of nowhere in the Cotswolds. We really needed our Land Rovers to deal with the mud and the snow.”

There’s no shortage of either here on the island of Iceland.

“This place is dangerous because the conditions here are unique,” says Hemsworth. “You have to really understand the challenges of being in Arctic waters, and understand the real power of the sea here. It feels different, fresher, wilder.”

“In most other countries you’re walking in off the sand or you jump into the water from a boat. In Iceland, you’re jumping off the rocks into the white water and then you swim out. That is challenging as I have my fins in one hand and camera in the other. I have to jump into the water and within two seconds have my fins on so that I can start to swim.”

Hemsworth has planned the day’s shoot, of Icelandic surfer Ari Agnarsson, for a stretch of water about an hour outside of Reykjavik, which can only be accessed cross-country.

The terrain is a mix of rock, lava and moss-covered tracks but the Defender shrugs it off.

It’s still two hours before dawn. The outside temperature will struggle to get any higher than 3°C today.

The light is incredible, and there is no-one else. Just me, or a surfer and me. It’s perfect

Megan Hemsworth

“Most days I’m up at 4am or earlier, because being in the sea before dawn is the best way to get the best shots,” says Hemsworth. “The light is incredible and there is no-one else there. Just me, or me and a surfer to shoot. It’s perfect.”

Her chosen lifestyle requires not just early rising but physical strength and mental stamina, too.

“Sometimes you have to be in a current to get the shot and you can feel like you are running out of energy. It feels like your legs are being pulled in the opposite direction to where you want to be, so you’re constantly kicking against it. If you relax at any point you can end up in a dangerous place.

“Usually, you’re one of maybe three people there and the others probably have surfboards, so really, it’s just you. There are
no lifeguards. You have to read big waves and dive right down under them so they don’t knock you.

"The key is to stay calm. If you get hit by a massive set of waves and you panic, your breath is shorter, you freak out and come up gasping. If you’re calm, you can breathe more easily when you come up.

“I’m out of my depth most of the time – I have to be, to get the shots – but I spend an hour or two every day out there in the water, wherever I am.”

Capturing Iceland's natural beauty

The journey is nearly over as Hemsworth’s chosen surf site looms into view, under a sky that’s never-ending and pencil-lead grey.

There is no beach, just swirling white water punctured by towering rocks, impervious to the seas crashing at their base. The wind howls as it whips the waves into a frenzied attack on the dark blades of the shoreline.

Sunrise isn’t far away, and Hemsworth and Agnarsson need to be in the water as day breaks. The rear door of the Defender is swung open so the boot can be used as a makeshift wardrobe.

To tackle the sea here Hemsworth needs her thickest winter wetsuit, a 6:5, two sets of neoprene socks, a hood, gloves and Aquatech casing for her camera.

She and Agnarsson have decided to go through the wild waters to reach the big calm at the back where the ocean is deeper, the waves are quieter. Quieter but bigger.

Getting the shots takes over an hour, in waters which can kill in less than ten minutes. Both photographer and surfer are thrown about in the sea, but Hemsworth keeps her cool, keeps swimming, her powerful legs steadying her in the wildest of waters.

When they arrive back at the Defender, they’re exhausted but euphoric, their eyes bright with excitement, their thermal neoprene-clad bodies sending plumes of steam swirling around the car.

The Defender’s boot is turned from wardrobe into photo studio so that Hemsworth can perch on the back of the car and scroll through the images she has taken.

Her face cracks into a wide grin, she turns to Agnarsson and they high five. They got the shots; they survived the sea.

“My next adventure will be shooting off some smaller islands off the coast of Scotland,” says Hemsworth as the Defender starts taking everyone back to town. “I’m all about the less-discovered places,” she grins.

Writer: Joely Carey
Photography: Richard Prescott
Always check route and exit before wading



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