Interview: Dave “Nelly” Nelson

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Skateboarding, Surfing, Photography, and Living Clean

Big Wave Surfers aren’t the only extreme athletes who venture out into treacherous, reef-lined waters to catch waves that stand three stories high. The spectacular images of surfers who barrel down those thirty-foot waves are caught by another type of extreme athlete: the surf photographer. Whether he’s at Half Moon Bay’s Maverick's, Tahiti's Teahupo'o, or his hometown of Santa Cruz, California, Dave “Nelly” Nelson has caught some of the most legendary shots of short and long board surfers in the past twenty-five years.

His climb to the top is one of endurance, bravery, risk, and humility. Like the champions he’s photographed, Nelly, too, fought the demon of addiction, nearly losing everything, and has landed on calmer shores of sobriety and family life.

A child who grew up thirty miles outside of Santa Cruz in Saratoga, California, Nelly began as a professional skateboarder. After he graduated high school, he moved “over the hill” to Santa Cruz. His love of surf, skateboarding, and the culture of Santa Cruz was both a blessing and a curse. He met up with big names in the surf world whose carefree, and often drug-centered, lifestyles quickly became his. “I was part of a sixty to seventy person crew. We pushed each other in every way.”

Life looked good, on the outside: success, a girlfriend, a lifestyle that he’d coveted. On the inside, Nelly’s drug abuse was tightening its grip. The assumption that addiction is brought on by hard times, disaster, or emotional upheaval did not pertain to Nelly. In Nelly’s case, the opposite was true. Success was his biggest trigger, and by his late twenties, he’d hit rock bottom.

“I lost my house, my car, my girlfriend…everything,” Nelly says.

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nelly- splI-1

He pedaled his bike to a recovery center in Santa Cruz, and stayed for six months. When he arrived, he was severely underweight, unhealthy, yet motivated to change. While in treatment, he learned about the need for a daily recovery program, the necessity to change his circle of friends, and to put his sobriety first.

“The biggest challenges in early recovery for me were trying to stay out of uncomfortable situations. Let’s face it, there are lots of them, and what breaks down that wall of inhibition is usually alcohol. I had to be really careful where I went: no weddings, no bars, no house parties with drugs.

“I’d wake up every day, have coffee, watch the sunrise, swim out, shoot some photos, eat, skate, surf, go to recovery meetings, shoot more photos, and say a prayer of gratitude for this new life I’d been handed!”

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nelly- splG

Professional photographer, Tony Roberts, who shot Nelly during his career as a skateboarder, was instrumental in Nelly’s fresh start. Over the years, he taught Nelly the ropes of photography—F-stops, lenses, and the use of flash. When Tony decided to move to Costa Rica, he passed the local torch of photography over to Nelly, which gave him contacts that an amateur could only dream. Now clean, and focused, Nelly’s childhood love of photography bloomed. His first photo submission was not only accepted, but turned into a poster at the center of Surfing magazine when he snapped a ten foot wave peeling off on Reunion Island, near Madagascar. From there, he was known for high-action surf photography for O’Neills, and big name surfers, such as Laird Hamilton.

In sobriety, he had one of his closest calls with death while photographing for O’Neill at Pipeline.

“The swell was high, and I was supposed to shoot some of the top O’Neill surfers. When the swell is on the rise, it sucks all of the water off of the reef, creating a dangerous situation. Everyone started to paddle out, so I swam out, too. A big set hit, and I swam into the barrel [of the wave], and got sucked over the falls. I hit the reef, and split my elbow in half. I came up, and another ten-foot wave pinned me. It cracked the water housing for my camera. I was totally out of breath, and thought, this is it. When I came up, I held up my camera to try to save it.”


Later that day, one of the top surfers from Tahiti, Malik Joyeux, drowned in that swell. It was another turning point for Nelly, who, at the time, was expecting his daughter, Kiala. Now that he has a family, he takes fewer risks in his work, knowing just how much he has to lose.

His passion in surf photography is currently short board surfing, catching surfers in spins and flips, along with the use of innovative flash photography in the water. Recently, Nelly was featured in a ten-page article in Surfing magazine where highlights of his work are detailed.

On his mind these days is the epidemic use of drugs, particularly methamphetamines, in the surfing community. Like his surfing colleagues, Darryl (Flea) Virostko, Peter Mel, and Anthony Ruffo, all committed to recovery, Nelly sees how adult/professional surfers set the tone for the youth who idolize them; that if they model drug use, young surfers will imitate that behavior. Likewise, if they see icons take a stand, and support and endorse organizations such as DFS-Drug Free Surfers, then they will follow that wave as well. That said Nelly is at work to see how he can impact youth in surfing, and help them achieve their dreams drug free.


Dave “Nelly” Nelson is a miracle. Not everyone makes it out the other side of drug abuse and addiction. If you know someone who needs help, please contact the following:

For a look at Nelly’s breathtaking photography, you can visit his website at: