Moss Landing, April 2014:
Breathing in labored, unsteady breaths, the world in front of me twitched to the left in repeated slants on the horizon. Then it spun.
This was going to be bad.
Vertigo struck – in mid-step – as I made my way down jagged rocks on the jetty. I fell to my knees and held fast to the thousands of dollars in camera gear in my hands. Protect the gear, was all I could think.
I was alone at this point, as my colleague had already made her way out of sight with the underwater camera.
I closed my eyes – now, kneeling uncomfortably on a semi-flat rock. Four or five rows of rocks led down to the water's edge. Behind me was another five rows of rocks to climb back over to get to the beach side of the jetty.
“Breathe in....” I told myself, knowing that if I were able to calm down enough I might just get stable for a few minutes, and could safely crawl back to the beach. “Breathe out...” I had to concentrate. I had stop panic from creeping in. It's a quirk of physiology that the human body and mind never acclimates to vertigo – no matter how many hundreds of attacks one may have.
Menieres Disease. Sounds like it should be something contracted in the darkest jungles, while being bitten by a mosquito. In reality; it's a decidedly cruddy inner-ear disorder that has no singular cause or treatment. For all I know, an ear infection in 2002 started the ball rolling for the diagnosis of menieres disease. No one knows. And, because so very little is known about it's origins, virtually nothing is known of how to treat the affliction.
Symptoms include: sudden, severe vertigo attacks, hearing loss, ringing in the ears and loss of equilibrium.
So, there I was, in the middle of a humdinger of a vertigo attack, unsteadily trying not to fall down the rocks in front of me – face first. “Just breathe,” I reminded myself.
If I were to stabilize myself, it would normally happen after about 10 minutes of having my eyes shut and controlling my breathing. Beyond that mark comes a new problem: nausea. The real problem there is uncontrollable retching that sometimes lasts for hours.
That was it. I was going to tumble down the rocks, land in the sea, break camera gear, vomit all over sea life and still not be able to extricate myself to safety.
“I'm going to die here....all for otter footage...for a whale movie,” I thought to myself.
With the world still spinning, climbing back over the rocks was not a good idea. I could possible lay flatter on the rock I was kneeling on. That way, albeit painfully, I could ride out the attack. I decided to chance it and opened my eyes to give me some visual guidance in sprawling out.
That's when I saw them.
Four California sea lions, swimming by – at about mid-channel – headed for the ocean. They looked over, all of them, saw me and stopped.
I had thought a lot about the sea lions that day. It was actually our second day of filming at Moss Landing. The day before had been in the late afternoon. The lighting was gorgeous. The wildlife abundant. We'd seen more than 30 otters, large groups of sea lions hauled out, some harbor seals and jellyfish about one-third the size of my body. We'd been captivated and enthralled by it all.
But what stood out most wasn't the vibrancy of life...it was death. For on the beach near the jetty, we'd come upon body after body of deceased sea lions – in various states of decay. The putrid smell of rotting flesh mixed with the scent of the ocean. The sea lions were dying in mass numbers – from toxic algae – and so frequently that marine stranding volunteers had no resources to remove the carcasses.
Domoic acid was a very likely culprit. Built up inside algal blooms, it can be fatal to seals and sea lions.
My arms were shaking....my vision blurred and the horizon was still twitching at 45-degree angles every second...but I could see the small group of pinnipeds, who were now looking at me. They swam over to the rocks – and all four leaning in towards me, craning their faces to within five feet of me. I could smell the fishiness of their warm breath.
There's no other way to put it; they were concerned about the fat, hairless ape, who was struggling and breathing like Darth Vader on the rocks in their broken world. Maybe the curiosity was whether or not I, too, would end up a putrefying carcass there.
As best I could, I locked eyes with them, as each one slowly slipped back into the water.
It steeled me enough to clamber back over the rocks, and roll-out onto the sand. Amid terse comments about, “look at the drunk guy,” and “hope he's not driving,” I stumbled back to the rental car with just enough time to vomit in front of a group of tourists.
Those snapshots are probably passed around at parties.
When I recovered from the attack, it really struck what an amazing moment that was, with the sea lions. They cared, in some way, about me. I knew I would always care about them, too.
That was the moment I knew I wanted to tell the story of this place – a place of unrivaled beauty...and unmitigated sorrows.
Award-winning filmmaker, Bestselling author and journalist.