Ocean Outcast: John Garza
From fear to career, this free diver and ocean photographer gets up close and personal with sharks.
Growing up in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, the “Shark Bite Capital of the World,” John Garza could have easily let sharks become a lifelong fear. While never having been bit himself, John carried several friends from the water after altercations with sharks while surfing. Enough to turn anyone away from the ocean for life.
Long-lining for sharks as a teen in Florida, John wouldn’t have another close encounter with sharks until many years later after moving out to Hawaii in pursuit of world-renowned surf breaks. While the original draw was epic waves, John quickly became entranced with diving and the clarity the water there provided. “I fell into a group of marine biologists and photographers. They were shark biologists, and they took me under their wing and taught me everything they knew, and I just fell in love with it,” he says, adding, “And now I’m here.”
A COMPLETE 180°
Together with his partner, Chief Stew Hannah Patten, John aims for Purely Blu Charters to change the way people view and interact with sharks and other marine wildlife. “Growing up, I had this [ … ] fear of sharks, and now I’ve done a complete one-eighty,” he says. “So, I like to tell people my story [ … ] I know it’s scary, but all it takes is for you to get in the water with the sharks for the first time and it’ll completely change your mind. It’s actually calming to me watching the sharks swim around. I feel like I could stay in the water with them forever,” he says.
Though John has traveled the world in search of dive spots and different species of sharks, from Tahiti and Tonga to Bali and Japan, “My favorite location is always going to be the Bahamas,” he says. “There’s this spot out there called Tiger Beach and tiger sharks are definitely my favorite to interact with out of all the species I’ve done dives with.”
Along with simply being in the water and experiencing sharks in their natural habitat, John has found a way to capture these ancient creatures through underwater photography. Having been introduced to photography by the same group who got him into diving, John began hosting his own underwater photography workshops. “I would take people diving and teach them all about interactions with animals in the water and their characteristics, while also teaching them about photography and how to use their cameras, how to edit,” he explains.
Realizing that he was pigeonholing himself by offering expeditions only to those interested in photography, he realized he needed to broaden his horizons. Together with Hannah, the “backbone and brains” of the operation, the pair created Ocean Outcasts.
Established in 2020, Ocean Outcasts is a lifestyle brand with the goals of bringing awareness and compassion to the ocean and inspiring others to “take a stand for our planet and ocean.” With several platforms under the Ocean Outcasts umbrella, including John and Hannah’s expeditions as well as a media team, John describes the initiative as “our way of bringing people on board and showing them why we love the ocean.”
“The ocean means everything to me,” he says, adding,” it’s a place I’ve gone to when I’ve had hard times going on in my life, and I can let go of everything and find peace”. Protecting this great blue wonder is something Ocean Outcasts takes seriously—using reef-safe sunscreens, teaching the importance of sustainability and sustainable fishing practices, and providing ocean education in addition to a day of adventure on the water.
A RESPECTFUL GUEST
The main takeaway for John when it comes to diving with sharks is respect. “Obviously I’m jumping in the water with sharks so it’s hard for me to tell others not to do it, but for me it’s about being respectful. I’ve spent the time and been diving with marine biologists and people that have studied shark behavior for years. So, when getting in the water I want to ensure the sharks feel comfortable that I’m in the water with them [ … ] and if they don’t want me in there, I don’t push it.”
With his iROCKER inflatable paddle board, John is able to enter into places without the noise of a loud engine announcing his arrival. “It just makes everything that much more peaceful and you’re not really disturbing the wildlife,” he says. And capturing the wildlife in their natural state of being is crucial to the artistic side of his venture. Preferring still photography to video, John shares his compelling images through both print work as well as his Instagram account, where he often accompanies each photo with important information about marine wildlife. Follow along at @johngarzaphoto and get up close and personal—that is until you’re ready to dive in with the real thing.