Kenny Hurtado bought his first camera after graduating high school in his native Orange County, California in 2001. He focused on surfing, and quickly rose up the ranks, working closely with surf photography luminaries like Larry “Flame” Moore and Steve Sherman. In the late ‘00s he studied photography at San Francisco Art Institute and Academy of Art San Francisco. His interests broadened, and so did his subject matter (last year he shot the marijuana scene in Humboldt County for The New Yorker). His most recent fascination is the dive scene in Sonoma County, where Hurtado now resides. We spoke via phone.
What inspired you to photograph divers?
So in 2017 I was driving down the coast from Mendocino when I saw some divers with their little rafts run across the street. I went, what the heck is that? I was looking for something that involved the ocean that wasn’t surfing, so I followed these guys down to the water and spent a few days documenting abalone divers. That year, 2017, abalone got banned in California because abalone’s been under threat with climate change and the purple urchins have been eating all the babies. That was around the time I moved up here, and I got to know the other divers who have been going out there trying to eradicate the purple urchin to bring back abalones.
When you say they’re trying to eradicate the purple urchin, what does that mean exactly?
So they’re trying to scrape as much purple urchin off the rocks as possible because the urchins come in and overtake the rocks and they end up devouring any of the abalone. So if there are abalone little babies that are trying to grow, the urchin will kind of come and attack them and get rid of them. So the abalone’s not growing. That’s why it’s been illegal to dive for them since 2017.
What are the divers like?
They’re kind of like cowboys, kind of rough-and-tumble, outdoorsmen-type guys who are super enthusiastic about trying to bring back abalone. It’s a pretty intense subculture up here, these hardcore ab divers. And they can’t dive for abalone now, so they’re aggressively trying to attack the purple urchin. They all have an environmental spirit.
Do you dive yourself?
I don’t have any dive gear, no, but I go out. I’ll borrow someone’s kayak and go out. For the most part I’ve been just capturing portraits.
Do the divers tell you any heavy stories from their experiences?
Not too much. I know there’s some intense shark attack stories that go around. But diving up here where there’s some big great white sharks, there’s been a few guys who have been taken out by it. Those are mostly the kind of stories they tell.
What do you love most about photography?