Justin Saxton’s Pensacola Beach story begins over 30 years ago in the mid ‘80s when he and his mom moved here from the Midwest. He was born Justin Shafer in Moline, IL in 1980—Shafer being his biological father’s last name. The early ‘80s in the Midwest were brutally cold and sent many families south in search of warmer weather, beautiful beaches, and the promise of new opportunities. Justin’s mom and dad split up during one of those cold Illinois winters, and looking for a fresh start, she and Justin migrated south to be closer to her parents in the Florida Panhandle. Justin was only four at the time, and memories of his birth place faded over the years.
While settling into their new life in Gulf Breeze, Justin’s mom met Van Saxton, a local surfer and fisherman. After a short courtship they married in 1986. Van and Justin took to each other quickly, and they became virtually inseparable. Van started taking Justin to Pensacola Beach right away, and pushed him into his first wave in front of Villas on the Gulf when he was only five years old. Surfing and fishing soon became a part of Justin’s daily life. Justin became more comfortable on a board as trips to surf the “Point” at Fort Pickens became a frequent event. One day Van brought Justin along on a bigger day when the waves were breaking on the outside sandbar. The paddle to the outside sandbar was brutal, and unfortunately on this particular day, Justin took one too many on the head and decided to hang up the board for a while. He wouldn’t surf again until high school.
Justin attended Gulf Breeze Elementary, Middle and High schools and if he didn’t spend so much time at the beach, he would have been labeled a Breezer. Around the time that Justin started picking surfing back up, the beach was slowly changing with more hotels and condos being built in the area. In the mid 90’s the beach was hit by two hurricanes, which brought even more change to the landscape. Pensacola Beach seems to rebound from storms and disasters with gusto. The structures and beachside businesses were rebuilt and replaced with stronger ones than before. This perpetual renewal meant there was always a new place to pick up a summer job and earn some money. Most surfers living in the area worked jobs with flexible schedules so they could “drop and go” when the waves were good. Searching for better quality and frequency of waves out of town was commonplace among the surf community. While Pensacola Beach can have incredible highs, most rideable days are wind driven and choppy. Its surfing community has historically been a tight-knit bunch, and it would be rare to see a face you didn’t recognize in the water. Justin was part of the newer generation, encroaching on the old guard. Animosity was a rarity between the older and younger surfers, but there was a distinct separation. The younger guys were keen on traveling to Central America, while older guys didn’t venture too far away from the U.S. mainland. The older guys would always wax nostalgic about how much better the waves used to be, while younger surfers talked about the new tricks they were working on.
After Justin graduated high school he took a trip to Costa Rica with a small group of local surfers who had recently formed a band. He also legally changed his last name to Saxton in honor of his stepdad and best friend, Van. When all of them returned home, the group invited Justin to watch their band practice in a storage locker at Uncle Bob’s Storage. They called themselves Wide Open and played ‘90s punk rock. Formed by frontman Rob Dill and guitarist Rob Keleman, they brought in Russ Allen to play drums and Randy Blackwell on bass. Justin immediately fell in love with the energy of the drums, so he saved up and bought his own set. Wide Open would eventually split, and Justin got the opportunity to join the newly formed band, Bury the Water. The two Robs remained while bassists came and went.
Bury the Water recorded an album and played a ton of shows at the local punk venues, but eventually they broke up and became Rising on Ashes. New members joined and changed the sound a bit, and eventually parted ways with Rob Dill, causing yet another band name change. This time they called themselves It Starts Today. IST would play together for over a decade, touring in Japan, playing Warped Tour as well as nearly every dive bar from Gulf Shores to Jacksonville Beach. Justin eventually moved out from behind the drums and took over as lead singer, a modern day Phil Collins. The path to rock stardom seemed just within reach until it wasn’t. In 2016 It Starts Today played their last show on St. Patrick’s Day to a rowdy crowd at The Break. Justin had been working at a tech startup, App River, in Gulf Breeze as a way to pay the bills and keep his music dream alive, but now it was his career. The same year It Starts Today played its last show, Justin married his long-term girlfriend Erin Ziegler in Mexico with 50 of his closest friends and family members. Soon after, Justin and Erin welcomed their daughter, Sloane, into the world. Justin traded in his drums for a digital camera to photograph his baby girl and soon found a passion for photography. While he’s not quitting his day job at App River, he’s become quite proficient behind the lens.
We’ve curated a collection of some of his favorite images for your viewing pleasure. Follow Justin on Instagram to see more of his one-of-a-kind Pensacola Beach photos https://www.instagram.com/surfjks/.
Justin was kind enough to sit down for a little Q&A on Pensacola Beach. Scroll down and enjoy.
What makes Pensacola Beach so special?
The sugar white sand, the crystal clear emerald green water, and it’s one of the only beaches left that isn’t lined with condos from one end to the other. So it has an authentic beach town feel with a local presence year round.
What has kept you from moving elsewhere?
My family is here, we have the best beach in the country, with incredible inshore and offshore fishing, fun surf and it’s a great place to grow up, raise children and retire.
What’s the best place to take the kids?
The beach of course!
Favorite breakfast spot at the beach/in town?
Beach: Native Cafe
My go-to in town: Single Fin Cafe
Special Occasion: George Bistro
Favorite lunch spot at the beach/in town?
In town: Wine Bar
Where is the best after work happy hour spot?
The Bridge Bar and Sunset Lounge or Casino Beach Bar
Best date night restaurant?
What is the one thing every visitor should experience?
A sunset on the point at Fort Pickens
What do love so much about the Blue Angels?
The power and precision and that I’ve watched them 1000 times and I still get the chills every time. And living on the beach, we get to catch them almost every Sunday evening during air show season as they fly down the beach in delta formation on their way home from air shows all over the country.
Give us some tips for capturing the Milky Way?
The darkest nights during a New Moon are always best along with clear skies. And getting away from light pollution is key. Anytime you can catch that combination in the summer months, just look south and you’ll be in for a treat. Luckily looking south here means looking over the Gulf of Mexico which has zero light pollution and there are miles of beach here that are protected and undeveloped as well. So you’ll be able to find the Milky Way with the naked eye. And of course even better by way of long exposure with a capable camera on a sturdy tripod.
What’s your favorite surf spot?
The Point, just wish it would break like it did in the 90s…
One piece of advice for visitors?
Don’t ignore the rip current signs and warnings. A fun day at the beach can change real quick. Also…don’t get too bushwhacked! They’ve been known to sneak up on you.
How has Pensacola/Pensacola Beach changed over the years?
Having a flourishing Downtown now in Pensacola full of great bars and restaurants, music and entertainment and our Blue Wahoos AAA baseball stadium right on the bay has been the biggest change over the last 10 years. Downtown used to be a ghost town. And now it’s full of life day or night 7 days a week.
What makes Pensacola Beach home for you?
It’s the only home I’ve ever known so it’s a part of me and the place of so many great memories. From learning to surf and fish as a kid, to the best days of surf we’ve had, to the biggest fish I’ve caught, to the countless weddings and celebrations I’ve attended, to the countless gigs my band played at night out here, to watching my kids grow and play. So much of my life has happened on this beach.
What are your favorite spots on the island to photograph?
I love to capture a good shelf cloud, microbursts, summer storms and lightning out over the gulf. As well as sunsets on the west end of the beach and night scenes of the local landmarks and icons – The Cross, The Pier, and white sand beach.
Who are some of your photography influences (local or national)?
Michael Shainblum @shainblumphotography
Rob Hoovis @hoovisyo
Matthew Coughlin @matthewcoughlin
Describe Pensacola Beach to someone who has never visited the area.
It’s a small barrier island with sugar white sand that squeaks when you walk on it and emerald green water that will mesmerize you. Also, some know it as ”The little drinking village with a fishing problem”
Personal favorite spot on the island for solitude and escaping the summer crowds.
Nothing beats a boat ride with friends to your own little stretch of beach.
What is the best kept secret or hidden gem of Pensacola/PB?
Fort Pickens is right across the bay from the Blue Angels’ hangar. So, you can catch the Blue Angels practice most Tuesdays and Wednesdays from March to November from Fort Pickens.