Editor’s Note: This article was originally published August 25, 2015 on YoOceans.org.
The hiss of the steam wand and the unmistakable smell of freshly ground coffee beans greeted me and my wife as we walked in the door of the Lynnwood, Washington, Starbucks on a lazy, hazy Sunday afternoon. While most in the coffee shop were seeking respite from the smoky skies due to a massive wildfire on the other side of the state, we were there to meet Rick Wood, a local filmmaker recently lauded for his award winning movie Fragile Waters, and his wife, Christy, for the first time.
Immediately we noticed the couple sitting at the dark, chunky, reclaimed wood table in the corner and within minutes, we were talking as if we’d known each other for years. Yes, that’s how easygoing Rick is, with a comfort and captivation in his stories that even had the baristas tilting an ear as we discussed his upcoming work titled Deconstructing Eden.
Nestled in his chair, Rick drew a long sip of iced coffee as he recounted his early days serving in the US Army with the 101st Airborne Division to his career afterward as a journalist, all while explaining his personal fight against Meniere’s Disease which has robbed him of his hearing in his right ear and partial hearing in his left.
In 2011, two Canadian sibling film directors introduced Rick to filmmaking, which fueled and fed his longtime passion to tell factual stories despite diminished hearing. As he likes to put it, “I’m a journalist, not an activist.” His hearing loss, coupled with unannounced and debilitating bouts of vertigo, make Rick’s story about how he came to undertake Deconstructing Eden that much more moving.
Through Challenge Comes Inspiration
While filming Fragile Waters in 2012, Rick and his co-director, Shari Macy, took the train to Monterey, California, to get footage. It was during this first trip when they stopped at Moss Landing Beach Park, roughly 15 miles north of Monterey along coastal Highway 1, where they stumbled across a deceased sea lion on the beach. Stunned and puzzled, Rick and Shari eventually came across six more dead sea lions within 20 minutes, as well as an old sea otter convulsing, which later died. This emotional sight, he says, stuck in his brain.
The next day, they returned to Moss Landing to film more sea lions. While Shari clambered over the large rocks to get to the end of the jetty for underwater shots, Rick walked around to get terrestrial shots when a massive bout of vertigo overcame him. Rick’s hands executed precise movements over his coffee cup as he described not moving for fear of falling face forward, while huddling his arms to protect his camera. Ever slowly, Rick dropped to knees, closed his eyes, and began to breathe rhythmically to ease the vertigo. After ten agonizing minutes on the rocks, he slowly lifted his eyes in what he described as a “seminal moment,” one where his idea for Deconstructing Eden was born.
Rick recounted that as he opened his eyes, he saw four California sea lions mid-channel swimming away from him. They could hear his distressed breathing and quickly turned around, swimming back to the rocks where he was resting. The next moment, as Rick describes it, was ethereal and moving. The sea lions craned and pushed their way onto the rocks and looked him in the face, as if to see if he was okay. Once they realized he was, the sea lions gingerly backed down the rocks, then swam away while looking back at him the whole time. Finally able to get to his feet and unable to shake what just occurred with the sea lions, Rick scrambled over the rocks and came face to face with another sea lion. However, this one was deceased. This, he said with warmth in his eyes, was his defining moment and when he saw clarity for his next project after Fragile Waters.
“They’re very sentient. They’re very cognitive,” Rick said of his friends who came to his side. “They know that their brothers and sisters are dying out there, and they came over to check on me? Someone needed to check on them. And that’s kind of where it started for me because it got in my blood at that point, and I knew I had to come back to do a story on this.”
Toxic Business Waste threatens Moss Landing Species
Tragically, these California sea lions are at tremendous risk due to toxic levels of waste being released into Moss Landing from businesses that dot the simple landscape around the water, along with domoic acid, the result of algal blooms. The sea lion, which he refers to as a “keystone species,” plays an integral role in biodiversity, or the number of different species that share the same ecosystem, and to lose them would take an immediate toll on the ecosystem. Rick said, “If we lose significant numbers as we are of California sea lions, then you have a loss of an intermediary prey source for large predators, primarily great white sharks and killer whales.” This, cruelly, is nature’s domino effect in motion.
In making Deconstructing Eden, Rick will also tell the story of another resident of Elkhorn Slough: the sea otter. These lovable mammals, which have been called “floating teddy bears,” gather in large groups known as rafts and are at significant risk from Toxoplasma gondii, a toxic parasite found in discarded cat litter which makes its way to waterways via toilet bowl disposal, along with sewage treatment plant and storm drain runoff which cause their bodies to systematically shut down, eventually with lethal results. As such, Rick spoke of approximately 55 sea otters that were recently tested for Toxoplasma gondii; of those sea otters, 80% tested positive. Ultimately, understanding the dire need to save the sea otter is as necessary as understanding their resilience.
After nearing extinction in 1910 and rebounding back three decades later to several thousand, yet still shy of the tens of thousands they were before, sea otters continue to play a critical role in the health of Elkhorn Slough, which is the most biodiverse estuary in California. Kelp forests are flourishing, which create a buffer for forage fish and improve the water quality of Elkhorn Slough, due mostly in part of the otters’ resurrection. However, according to Rick, they are in danger yet again of a massive decline. Frank in his admission, Rick said, “Otters are dying in bigger numbers now, and we’re right on the edge of another decline, but this decline is not going to be a cyclical one. If we don’t do something to save them, they’re going to decline out in those areas. And if we lose them in Elkhorn Slough, we lose the slough. And if we lose that estuary, California doesn’t have another one like it.”
Behind The Lens: The Personal Side
Contrary to popular belief, filmmaking isn’t glamorous, nor is it lucrative. There are many sacrifices made when one decides to commit to a life behind the lens, and Rick is no exception. Clearly, the lack of consistent income is one of the most obvious sacrifices, while others tend to be personal. In Rick’s case, he related the story of Zoe, a loggerhead turtle he came to know fondly while filming the movie Journey Home. Zoe had significant, multiple fractures to her carapace and died eight months later. Upon learning of Zoe’s death, Rick broke down into tears. Zoe’s passing, along with a very painful and personal recall of events while serving in Operation Desert Storm, are among many heartfelt reasons Rick continues to do filmwork with the ecosystems and animals as his subject matter.
We spoke of the “bucket list” where I asked Rick if anything was on his list he wished to direct before eventually hanging up the camera gear in retirement. His statement was so telling, honest, and heartfelt, as he eloquently said, “I can’t say that there is a singular issue. I would like to think that everybody has their own hallmark – benchmark – for success. My benchmark – the moment I will think that I’ve reached any form of success in this – is when there is any species out there that was on the brink of extinction that goes back to not even being on the endangered species list as the direct result of the information that I bring to light.”
When asked, Rick’s summation of his main reason for filmmaking is simple: his own flesh and blood. He spoke highly of his son and daughter, both of whom share his passion for animals and ecosystem, and to whom he would like to leave a legacy of his efforts as a filmmaker. Rick’s closing thought resonated through my mind on the drive home, the blaze orange sun heading quickly for the smoky horizon. And yet again, it pulses through my mind as I sit here in the quiet of night, writing his story.
“This is probably the most dynamic time in human history, and I know every generation likes to think that. But we are actually living on this precipice of either being the heroes of our species, or the end of it, and that’s where we sit,” Rick said.
“I can’t leave a legacy to my kids of having sat on my hands. I can’t say when asked by my grandchildren, ‘What did you do about the orcas? What did you do about the pandas? What did you do about the whatever?’ I can’t say, ‘Well, I read stuff on Facebook. I signed petitions.’ The reality is, I have an avenue. I have something I can do that’s going to create change, even on a small scale.”
Nothing is small scale with Rick Wood, and his films are evidence of such. Funding is still underway for the project, in what Rick hopes will be his benchmark piece. He knows he will return to see his friends in the water again, and as he takes the message of hope, survival, and conservation to the masses, he wants to reciprocate what they did for him on the rocks that day. He simply wants to make sure they’re okay.