For Maher, the sea is as timeless as the photographic image, and vice versa – and now, the La Jolla native has been chosen for an award that reflects his dedication to both.
Maher, 33, has been named seasonal lifeguard of the year by a group of peers and supervisors from City of San Diego Lifeguards. The honor, presented at the annual Hardy Awards banquet last August at The Local sports bar in Pacific Beach, recognized Maher's 16 years of seasonal lifeguarding, which in July saw him involved in 501 rescues and at least one effort that saved a diver's life.
Also honored at the banquet was UTC resident Jacob Petty, 23, who with the help of friend Jonathan Flike saved the life of a 16-year-old girl found facedown in the waters off Sunny Jim's Cave.
Many factors, Maher said, help determine the selectee. Candidates have demonstrated a strong understanding of the organization's values and responsibilities that promote and maintain clean and safe community beaches and waterways. They have a strong work ethic and are dedicated to job-specific training, which improves readiness in the field. Above all, they recognize the importance of teamwork through leadership, mentoring and training.
“I can't stress 'teamwork' enough,” Maher said, “and I'm fortunate to have such a great support network at work and at home. We help each other succeed in reaching our goals, which in turn strengthens our service and the safety of the community.”
That recent brush with danger serves as a case in point. A scuba diver off La Jolla Shores had gotten into trouble outside the surf line and required CPR on a rescue board in the water; he eventually regained a heartbeat and breathing and survived with the help of Maher and fellow lifeguard Juan Gonzalez.
“This rescue,” Maher said, “is a great example of the importance of a strong team [that] constantly trains together. Because of our training, we were able to work seamlessly together to save his life.”
Maher also reported that his small team of Windansea lifeguards effected 354 rescues over the Labor Day weekend – “which is considerably more rescues than I can remember making... over Labor Day weekend. Our high rescue activity this summer is a result of warm water drawing more people into the water, large surf and very strong, dangerous rip currents pulling out to sea from the shoreline.”
Maher, a La Jolla High School grad and Windansea Beach product, “grew up around the ocean,” first as a junior lifeguard and later a competitive surfer. He's been a surfboat operator and for more than 20 years an emergency medical technician for a Fijian resort; he also works as a lifeguard in Indonesia and is a watercraft operator for the Big Wave World Tour, which determines the world surfing championship every year.
Eventually, art found its way alongside the science that had marked Maher's career. He'd start an ocean photography business as an international lifeguard – and he credits his closeness with the sea for the inspirations.
“What separates my images from the rest,” he said, “is my intimate relationship with the ocean. Because of my experience in the ocean, I have an understanding of tide, wind, current, swell, temperature [and] sand movement and have developed the ability to read ocean patterns, which enable[s] me to create unique photographs.”
“It is the representation of life above and below the surface, and the surrounding beach culture, that gives purpose to my photographs,” he continued in a statement on johnmaherphoto.com, his website, “I continually aspire to make photographs that represent the ocean’s ever-changing identity, with the goal of establishing a body of work that exhibits a visual exploration of ocean energy and its impact on our emotional well-being.”
In the Before Time, John Maher probably would have been some kind of pirate – but he'd be one of the good guys, saving damsels from the ravages of the sea by day and painting his exploits by night. There might have even been a pirate award for gallantry in his day. The Local would be all that's missing.