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A Look into the World of San Diego’s Dawn Patrol Surfers

As the rest of the county sleeps, photographer Jim Sullivan captures the North County surfers who catch their first wave just before sunrise

By Photography by Jim Sullivan

Dawn Patrol surfers - main

Early morning winter surfer, Encinitas. Shot on Ektachrome E120 film.

Jim Sullivan is used to aiming his camera lens at a beautifully plated dish prepared by an acclaimed chef or a colorful piece of produce. The San Diego-based photographer and culinary school graduate has contributed to Food & Wine magazine, Michelin, and several cookbooks. But a pandemic project that he started in 2020 led him to a new muse, and into the subculture of surfing’s dawn patrol: the waveriders who brave paddling out into chilly waters and catching a few sets before sunrise.

“I wanted to do something documentary-style here in San Diego,” Sullivan says. “Secondly, I wanted to do it in a more artistic flair, something similar to Trent Park’s Crimson Line book.” He photographed surfers at beaches throughout the county, and now his “Dawn Patrol” series has become an ongoing project. “It’s a little out of my comfort zone since most of my work revolves around the culinary world,” he says. “My hope is to continue to document this group of surfers over time, to create a body of work that represents that time of day through my eyes.” – Marie Tutko

Dawn Patrol surfers - tower 13

Tower 13 in Mission Beach at approximately 5:45 a.m., just before the sun broke the horizon. “The timing was intentional to get that blue light and moodiness,” says Sullivan.

Dawn Patrol surfers - reflection

A reflection through a car window at dawn in Encinitas.

Dawn Patrol surfers - Sunset Cliffs

Portrait of a surfer at Sunset Cliffs.

Dawn Patro surfers - van

A surfer preps to paddle out in Encinitas in the early morning.

Dawn Patrol surfers - trio

A bright December morning after sunrise in Ocean Beach, taken on Portra 800 120 film

Dawn Patrol surfers - portrait

Portrait of a surfer prior to paddling out on Sunset Cliffs

Dawn Patrol surfers - horizon

A surfer looks out on the horizon atop the cliffs at Black’s Beach

Dawn patrol surfers - Cardiff

A clear and chilly winter morning in Cardiff

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