Port Stanley Photographer Dave Sandford on Capturing Lake Erie Waves

Dave Sandford is the king of Lake Erie's "liquid mountains." Here's how he does it — and what nature photography means to him. 

A giant Lake Erie wave

Dave Sandford was 9 years old when he told his dad he wanted to be a hunter.

“Why do you want to shoot an animal with a gun,” his father responded, “when you can shoot an animal with a camera?”

So his father bought him his first camera, launching a 40-year love affair with nature photography. “Literally, that’s where my passion and love of photography stemmed from,” says Sandford, who lives in London, Ontario. “I just wanted to be closer to animals.”

But Sandford is likely best known as the creator of “liquid mountains” photography, which captures the chaos that happens on a particular beach in Port Stanley, Ontario, in late fall and early winter.

“You need the right wind direction, the right wind speed in order to make things happen the way that they do,” Sandford says. “It’s a combination of the way the shoreline juts out and the angle of the pier, combined with the fact that you’re going from deeper water to shallower water. It’s just the perfect storm.”

And it causes two waves to move in opposite directions and collide, creating one giant wave that can reach as high as the top of the Port Stanley Lighthouse.

The result isn’t just a giant swell, though. The waves can take on all kinds of interesting and unexpected shapes.

In 2015, Sandford — who often gets into the frigid water to shoot with his Cannon Mirrorless R5 — captured a wave that resembled a giant skull. It went viral, reaching millions of people around the globe.

It also inspired a movement.

“When I was shooting in 2015 there was virtually nobody on the beach,” Sandford says. “There’s between 25 and 30 photographers on the beach on any given day now.”

Cody Evans is one of Sandford’s protegees. Seeing a rough forecast, he showed up on the Port Stanley beach in November and, after taking about 10,000 photos, managed to capture what looks like the profile of a Greek God. His photo went viral and, in the many interviews that followed, he pointed to Sandford as his inspiration.

“It’s pretty special to know that I did something that nobody else had been doing,” Sandford says, and I did it well enough that it made others want to come check it out."

Sandford began his career as a photographer for the National Hockey League, leaving his nature photography for weekends and holidays. But as his reputation grew, so did his options.

He now only covers the big games for the NHL and devotes the rest of his time to wildlife photography, taking long arduous trip to the Arctic.

Dave Sandford sometimes gets as close as 10 feet to his arctic subjects.

“Polar bears were always at the top of my list of favorite animals going back to when I was a little kid,” he says. “My first love has always been polar bears.”

But what started as love has turned into a mission. Sandford, who serves as an ambassador for Polar Bears International, has had his work published in National Geographic, Canadian Geographic and Reader’s Digest.

“I understand that what I do can play a role in making positive change,” he says. “People out there every day look at my work. Perhaps it makes them want to do better for our environment. It really is special to know that what I’m doing does actually have a meaningful impact.”

Sandford says he’s gotten as close as 10 feet to a polar bear (he travels with trained guides and licensed gun handlers, though he’s never had to use one).

There are still two photographs he’d like to capture: a polar bear emerging from her den with her cubs in late winter and a polar bear under the northern lights. “It would be almost an impossible thing to do,” he says.

That won’t stop him from trying; his next trip to the Arctic is scheduled for August.

“I don’t know what else I’d do in life,” Sandford says. “I feel very blessed.”

Stay on top of everything Lake Erie has to offer — all year long — by subscribing to our free The Splash newsletter. It’s your guide to the best food, drinks, parks, beaches, shopping, festivals, music and more. Click here to subscribe.