Sean Ruttkay

Even a fleeting glance of Sean Ruttkay’s work will settle in your mind. The 32-year-old artist and surfer captures pictures in places humans don’t usually have cameras: in the pipe of a breaking wave, the moment a sea turtle breaks the surface to steal a breath, or the point where light illuminates a jellyfish.

His photography is big, bold, and lifelike. Ranging from 2 feet by 3 feet, to 8 feet by 12 feet, his pieces are massive and shot at close proximity — usually within 12 inches.

Robin Nalepa, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, says people are surprised when they see Ruttkay’s work hanging in the outdoor gardens. “Visitors are admiring butterflies and ponds, and then there is this stunning photograph mounted amid the trees,” she says.

Influenced by his father, an artist in the Washington, D.C., area where Ruttkay was raised, the University of North Carolina Wilmington alumnus knew art was his path after snapping frames during a worldwide surfing trip after graduation. During a professional debut show in his childhood neighborhood, Ruttkay sold enough images to finance his next trip abroad. Since then he’s sold more than 1,000 pieces and has a following of almost 8,000 people tracking his latest creations through social media.

You can spot his distinctive work on the walls of surf shops and laid-back eateries throughout Wrightsville Beach and Wilmington, but it’s the outdoor installations that have garnered the most attention. Lifelike bluebirds for the Cape Fear Garden Club, landscapes for a beer garden, and a 12-foot surfer above Sweetwater Surf Shop are hard to ignore. Thanks to a durable surface of weatherproof aluminum, his photos are like high-definition television screens paused on the National Geographic channel. They hold color, show minute details, and withstand the harsh outdoor elements.

Even the pieces outside the aquarium, which were installed in 2010, haven’t lost their sharpness, Ruttkay says, despite tropical storms, snow, and corrosive sea breezes.

It’s his way of expressing “visual reality” and recreating a moment so true to the experience that you think you know what it’s like to swim with a loggerhead. “I feel what I am doing is a wholehearted approach to life,” Ruttkay says. “A full sensory experience.”

To view and purchase Sean Ruttkay’s photography and art, visit his website at

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Claire Parker lives and writes in Wilmington, where she enjoys reading a good book with a little bit of sand between her toes.