Check out video from last Thanksgiving
in Laguna Beach shot from Kobetich's
UAV Recon Quad Aircraft camera,
as well as more images shot with
his underwater camera.
We all love the ocean. We do. That’s why we live in Orange County. But do we love the ocean as much as Dale Kobetich, photographer, artist, surfer, and inventor?
It’s hard to say. Kobetich loves the ocean a lot – so much so that for most of his life, he’s been inventing cameras, flying machines and video devices to capture it in all its glory, from under piers, in tidepools, through waves, alongside sea life, and during all seasons, weather conditions and circumstances. The resulting images and footage is homage to the love of his life: the ocean.
To hear Kobetich talk about his reverence for the ocean is like listening to someone talk about their first love: There’s a history, an intimate knowledge of points flattering (and not), a healthy dose of nostalgia, and a record of the good times and the bad. Like the time he stayed out in the ocean from noon until dark, capturing beautiful image after more beautiful image, entranced by the light and oblivious to the passage of time, until he was so dehydrated he could barely stumble out of the water. Or one Thanksgiving, when he flew his UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) through the palm trees at Laguna Beach’s Heisler Park at sunset, until it came to rest at the edge of a cliff and hovered behind an elderly couple sitting on a bench, admiring an unforgettable sunset. The resulting video still causes an emotional speech; that was a definite crack in his voice.
But these works have come as the result of a lifetime of tinkering, of experimenting and fiddling, that didn’t always go over so well. “In high school, I got Ds and Fs because I used to ditch classes and go use the drill press in the shop,” says Kobetich. “I felt like high school was teaching you what you couldn’t do. They wouldn’t see you creating something and say, ‘Hey, this is special, let’s help him along.’” So Kobetich did it himself, going on to invent one-of-a-kind underwater cameras that were far ahead of their time; props for the surf industry, including the camera, pole and grip used by surf photographers all over the world to document surfers in action; and methods of taking panoramic scenes that simultaneously capture both the ocean floor and the scenery above.
This kind of innovation only comes from what some might call an obsession with the ocean. And for Kobetich, it began at a young age. “In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, I covered the coast with my dad snorkeling and fishing,” says Kobetich. “That was a huge influence. It just stuck with me and I always wanted to share what I saw.”
The camera was a particularly convenient medium then, for a kid who didn’t like telling stories and who felt more alive in his garage than at parties. One of his first experiments, a water housing he built in 1969 at the age of 14 using his mom’s Kodak Instamatic camera, worked astoundingly well, and served as the platform for the complex machines he builds and uses today. They don’t look like your average cameras, because they’re not. Using a Canon 7D Digital Camera as a base, one of Kobetich’s underwater cameras encloses the entire thing in custom-made water proof housing, then attaches flashes to the top of the device and adds an optically perfect dome that he makes himself in a vacuum chamber in his oven. Another is used to take panoramic images, and is similarly enclosed in water proof housing and painted in front to resemble a shark jaw, presumably to interact with the sea life Kobetich often encounters on his ocean photography excursions. The resulting contraptions take photos that simultaneously capture in crystal clear detail the world beneath the ocean and the landscape above, which hang in galleries, are the darlings of print magazines and are displayed in countless living rooms all over the world. And then there’s the UAV, a remote-controlled flying device entirely built from scratch that travels above the land and the sea to take video of the goings on below. “I taught myself how to do everything, like how to make molds, how to work with plastics, how to work with carbon fiber, how to design things,” says Kobetich. “It’s what allows me to be out in the ocean, to document it for other people. That’s why I shoot photos.”
The sunset in Laguna is turning out to be a spectacular one. Kobetich is getting restless, distracted by the light on the water and the way the clouds are filtering the sun – a sun dog, he says it’s called, when there’s a patch of rainbow on either side of the sun. He wants to go shoot, so we stop talking and he walks down the beach into the water. “It’s going to be a great sunset,” he says, looking out, as if it were the first time he’d seen such splendor.