Skip to main content









Donation Heart Ribbon
Visit the Midday Edition homepage

San Diego Filmmakers Document Our Ties To The Ocean

January 8, 2014 1:27 p.m.


Pierce Kavanaugh, Filmmaker, What the Sea Gives Me

Ryan Levinson, San Diego mariner

Related Story: San Diego Filmmakers Document Our Ties To The Ocean


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: As we mentioned earlier in the show, so far this winter has given us so many sunny warm day, we could almost call it beach weather! And the fact we can enjoy the sea and beach in January says a lot about life in San Diego. It also says a lot about how much we define ourselves by our proximity to the ocean. And we're not alone. A new documentary focuses on a variety of people who have close ties to the sea, including a great white shark researcher, an ocean scientist, and a body surfer. The documentary asks each of the subjects to ponder the question that the title of the film: What the sea gives to me. I spoke with the documentary's director.


CAVANAUGH: Pierce, people usually think of the beach and the ocean as a place of recreation and fun. I don't think we give a lot of thought to what the sea gives us.
KAVANAUGH: I've always had a deep relationship with the ocean. Investigating my connection to the sea, I wanted to tell other people's stories.
CAVANAUGH: What is your connection to the sea?
KAVANAUGH: I grew up right next to it. I would wake up to the tides and hear the surf all night. So it became like a rhythm or pulse in my life. And I just never -- even if I moved away from it, I always longed for the sea.
CAVANAUGH: Did you find that there was -- a thread that ran through the ideas about the sea and the ocean among the people that you interviewed for this documentary?
KAVANAUGH: Yes, I did. All the individuals didn't just say I like sunsets, like the ocean, like recreation. These are people who's lives center around the ocean. Oceanographers, people who just have a little bit more.
CAVANAUGH: Ryan, you are one of the people interviewed in this documentary. What does the sea give you?
LEVINSON: The sea gives me -- it's not an easy answer. Connection, maybe. It gives me a place to recreate, a place to escape to, a place where I can feel home and familiar. It gives me a challenge. It gives me a place -- it's like a school, a place where you can become humbled and become more awakened. And the sea gives me purpose, meaning, direction. The sea gives me sort of an experience. And I think many people should go out and try to embrace it for themselves as well.
CAVANAUGH: Has the ocean always been an important part of your life?
LEVINSON: Yes. But it's increased throughout my life as well. But from a very, very early age, I remember very specifically the exact moment where it just clicked. This isn't just something fun to go do like riding a roller coaster, this is something that's going to be more the rest of my life.
CAVANAUGH: What was that moment?
LEVINSON: I was in cocoa beach Florida. And up until then, I had surfed a few time, and I was into being a surfer. My friends surfed, and I wanted to have the bleached hair and the girls and all that stuff and say dude a lot.

LEVINSON: I went down to the beach, and I was paddling into wave after wave, but that day I stood up and I crouched and I remember it was probably 8:00 in the morning, cloudy skies, really clean glassy conditions on the soft wave, and I stood up and crouched, and the board angled down the wave, and for the first time ever I sort of got to experience being a part of that flow instead of just being pushed around by it or being beat up with it. It sounds cheesy, but kind of dancing with it rather than just listening to the music. And I went home that night, and I was, like, that's it. I found it.
CAVANAUGH: Now, you're diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. You are planning a major sailing trip. Can you tell us about that?
LEVINSON: Yeah, my wife and I are going to sail our 38-foot boat across the Pacific ocean. And explore some of the more remote areas of the earth. We're going to be out surfing, diving, and hiking and swimming, and sailing, and existing.
CAVANAUGH: You talk about the sea being a great equalizer when it comes to your abilities. No one can walk on the ocean. A ship is like a wheelchair on the water.
LEVINSON: Exactly. You're good!

LEVINSON: You nailed it. That's actually a sound bite I use a lot, an analogy to explain it. Here in San Diego it's easy to sometimes feel like a disabled guy. Or different. I can't paddle a surfboard anymore. So when I go out and ride, I have to use different equipment and I'm slower. When I park, I have a special parking pass. It's obvious. But when you're out there, the ocean -- I don't want say it doesn't care. It's not that I feel excluded here in San Diego. It's just that I'm reminded of it more. And when I'm out there, it's different. I'm a part of it. I'm connected to it. I look up at the stars and the sun to find out where I am. I look at the clouds and feel the wind and the direction and shape and intensity of the waves to know what the weather is going to be like in a few days. Here in San Diego, the waves come and you ride them, and you know that they come from a storm far away and all that, but I'm going to go out and I'm going to find the source. And I'm going to dance amongst it. And it's just a unique experience.
CAVANAUGH: Pierce, what went into the decision for who you were going to interview for this film? What were you hoping their stories would bring?
KAVANAUGH: Well, I have a surfing background, but I didn't want to pigeonhole it just as another surf film. So I went for the broadest spectrum I could as far as people who have a relationship with the ocean. Whether it be artists, photographer, oceanographer, sailors, things of that nature. So I just wanted to have people come in to watch a certain part of the film, but be attracted to another part. Come in to see a great white shark researcher, but leaving having an appreciation for Ryan and what he was doing on his trip, things like that.
CAVANAUGH: Who are some of the other people who are profiled in this?
KAVANAUGH: Dr. Walter Monk, he's one of my favorites.
LEVINSON: A legend.
KAVANAUGH: He's considered the foremost oceanographer on the planet. He's 97 years old. Won award after award. He was the first student ever at Scripps. So I thought that was pretty -- he started the whole student body, single handedly. He did research to help the boys who stormed Normandy. He had to do the wave forecasting to make sure they could get safely on the beach. And that became what now is surfline and wave forecasting. So that's just one of his many things that he's accomplished. He's an incredible man.
LEVINSON: And he's a super nice guy.
CAVANAUGH: I think a lot of San Diegans may relate to the body surfer that you interviewed. She has a really basic reason for loving the ocean.
KAVANAUGH: Pure joy. A lot of people they get confused and muddle around when I say what is your connection with it. She says I love it, it's pure and simple. Just pure joy. Like Ryan, it washes all the stress away. But she doesn't get much further than pure joy, are and I like that.
CAVANAUGH: Not necessarily the sea giving them a career or a reason to get up in the morning, but just this overwhelming sense of joy that they don't get anywhere else.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Ryan, the adventure that you're embarking on would be risky for somebody without any physical challenges. But there are extra risks for you. How are you handling the idea of being out in the ocean far away from outside help?
LEVINSON: I'm looking forward to it. Life at sea is unique in these times where you have to rely on your own wits, and there's not a safety net to fall back on. You can't just Google the answer to something when it breaks. So even if you have all of your muscles and you're fully ablebodied, when you're out there in the middle of the ocean, are the challenges could be such that you're not able to physically overcome them. So you have to -- you sort of rely on yourself in a way that you don't often get to do. And I relish that. I welcome that. I'm hoping to experience it fully. Everything, the fear, the joy, the accomplishment, the challenge, the reward. The whole thing. So for me, if you're asking more from a mechanical standpoint -- and she's shaking her head. I didn't think so!

CAVANAUGH: I was asking just exactly the way you answered the question. But I'm also wondering do you hear any negative voices? What are your doctors saying about this? Is anybody trying to dissuade you from doing this?
LEVINSON: Most people who know me have given up trying to dissuade me from stuff.

LEVINSON: I would say the biggest negative voice has come from my own head. Just like a lot of people. People have dreams and things that know they're called to do. And they don't because of their own fears. And it's okay to have those fears. Ive welcome it, I embrace it. And to move forward despite those fears is when the adventure starts to happen, whether it's crossing an ocean or going to meet someone or making a movie, you know? It's all the same thing. The nightmare I have is falling overboard and not being able to get back on the boat. I'm not strong enough to do that. I have not a lot of balance. Moving around on a moving boat is a challenge. So that's the scary thing. But I'm way more scared of not going, yeah.
CAVANAUGH: Pierce, looking at the trailer footage for your documentary, this is a beautifully shot film.
KAVANAUGH: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: Can you tell us about some of the actual filming that you did and the challenges that you faced?
KAVANAUGH: Traveling is a challenge. Scheduling is a challenge. But we made it work because people were really willing to help out and make themselves available. We travelled up to New England, Oregon/California border, so the logistics are tough. But it's mechanic manageable because it's a job that I love. Nothing is too hard. Like Ryan and I, we've become really good friends because of this. It's cool to be able to call someone you interviewed and be, like, hey, how's it going? So all of the difficulties, I just -- I don't even really think about. I just put them behind me. I jump each hurdle as it comes.
CAVANAUGH: What was it like with the great white sharks?
KAVANAUGH: That's scary business. I had someone else film that.

KAVANAUGH: Yeah, they keep me up at night. So that's not really my cup of tea. But I do a lot of the other filming.

KAVANAUGH: When I was thinking about this film and looking at the trailer and reading about it, we hear a lot of news about how the oceans are threatened from pollution, how ocean life is threatened by climate change. What would you like people to take away from what the sea gives me?
KAVANAUGH: Well, it's just the importance of the ocean. Everyone has a certain connection, whether you like to go down and watch the sunset or whether you just like the ocean or any type of connection is important. As we bring up these important topics, dangers that are faced in the ocean, people just need to be educated about them. And if you keep being educated, you're going to -- maybe someday you'll change what's wrong with the planet.
CAVANAUGH: And is it important too I'm wondering for people who perhaps don't have the kind of connection that you guys have with the ocean and the sea to actually experience a documentary like this? Maybe they don't realize how important it is for people to have that connection, and how much we actually rely on the ocean. Upon
KAVANAUGH: True. It's just a level of awareness. That's why we did this film. And again, it wasn't a surf film, it's just a real broad spectrum so everyone can enjoy it. And if you're enjoying it, you'll just get pulled in, and learn a lesson about actually thinking you did.

LEVINSON: I couldn't help thinking, I think some people see the ocean when they're surfing for example as no different than a skate park. It's a tool by which to maneuver their board or do tricks. Or they see it as a road for their boat. And I think that level of connection brings a level of enjoyment and fun. But when you see it in a more encompassing way and you sort of realize you're part in it, you're not just sort of using it as a tool, then the experience becomes so much more profound and fun. And I think what Pierce do that's so amazing, he brings that message forward through the way that he films and the stories this he tell, and the way that he tells them. The people that he chooses. I couldn't be more grateful for that. And I think that's a gift that a lot of people are going to get from this film too, to deepen their own experience from the ocean.
CAVANAUGH: What was it like being a part of this documentary, Ryan?
LEVINSON: Oh, super fun! I'm, like, what do you want to film? Just do your thing! Well, today I'm wiring batteries.

LEVINSON: And four hours later, they're watching me wire batteries! It was great! But the thing that was the most fun for me was getting to know these guys. And the questions they asked were so -- just like your questions, powerful. They got it. And they were asking me, not guiding a certain direction, but genuinely interested. And through that, it let me look deeper into myself and learn from them. When you have such good positive energy in one place, good stuff comes from it.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much.
KAVANAUGH: Thank you.
LEVINSON: Thank you.