In freediving they teach you to protect your ears. Don’t go down if you feel any pressure, they tell you. Equalize constantly using the Frenzel Maneuver as opposed to the more air-intensive Valsalva Method. If your wetsuit is hooded poke holes at the ears to ensure no unintended barriers disrupt clearing.
But you can’t plan for everything. Like sea lions—nobody warned me about those.
La Jolla is on the north side of San Diego. It’s a marine sanctuary on the edge of the city, the kind of place tourists and locals alike flock. The water is cool but clear, and it’s lined by beaches, caves and one well-known cove: La Jolla Cove, where the sea lions are.
We’d already seen one sea lion two days before snorkeling from the beach to the caves. It was evening, growing dark soon, but Reza suggested we could get to the caves, which offer exploration opportunities. Along the way we’d pass troves of leopard sharks. So we suited up, waded into the breakers and swam.
The waves were bigger than we expected. They slammed the nearby seawall, throwing spray into the sky. The sand floor churned. There were no leopard sharks. “It must be too rough for them,” Reza said, “but not for stingrays. Watch out for them.”
One slid past, its wings beating in unison, its body gliding over the sand. I swam after it, watching its path arc and bend. But it didn’t take long to lose me. Soon I was aimed for the caves.
The swell that scattered the leopard sharks was disturbing the caves too—each wave flooded the hollows, pounding the insides. I went in briefly, flushed by the surge, but it wasn’t a place to stay. We swam out a safe distance and watched the pounding, opting for a perch among the seagrass as it streamed back and forth in the depths. A few leopard sharks poked around, and fleets of striking orange Garibaldi fish, the state fish of California. But dark approached, and soon we were heading back towards the beach.
That’s when it happened: A seal popped up. Or a sea lion. He was just a few feet away, his nose pushed up out of the breakers. He was playing in the waves, snaking between us. He knew we were there, and he didn’t care.
“That was SO COOL!” Katelyn shouted, shivering. She was right.
Two days later we were back, but instead of the beach we went to the cove, the hangout for sea lions. It’s a public park, but it’s unclear who it’s intended for, humans or wildlife. The left side of the small beach is covered with 400-pound sea lions and their pups, joined by people snapping selfies. It’s chaotic, with the occasional sea lion charge. But on land they waddle more than run, and the crowds were able to get out of the way. Sometimes, though, there was lots of shrieking. (There was a This American Life story about this sea lion/human dynamic. It’s worth a listen.)
The right side of the beach, meanwhile, is the domain of swimmers and snorkelers, humans looking to explore the wetter part of the cove. That’s were we set up, pulling on wetsuits, donning masks and fins. I wadded in, trading the noise of the beach for lapping waves.
In the water the sea lions were everywhere: snaking through the depths, turning and barrel-rolling in the waves. They were dancing, playing in teams of two and four. I dove with them, trying to hold my breath and keep up as they rocketed past rocks and reed beds. The were so fast, underwater torpedo-shaped bears. We dove and dove and dove together; they weren’t scared of me. They swam around and investigated me, peered at my wetsuit, fins and snorkel, but never too close. They were like underwater mirrors mimicking my dives, always partway across the room. I’d come up breathless, but then another would swim by and I’d follow. They never ran away; they swam unconcerned.
“That was AMAZING!” I said when I came out for a break, panting. “I could do that forever.”
And soon I was back in the water, again surrounded by sea lions. Four of them sliced through the swells around me, sleek as sharks. I watched them spin as they rocketed below the surface. I dove and joined them, imitating their twisting and corkscrewing.
That’s when I felt it—as I spun a little pocket of air in my ear canal bubbled out and danced toward the surface. Seawater rushed into the void. I felt it slam cold against my eardrum. There was a brief, sharp pain, and then I felt woozy. I was less than two feet below the surface, but I needed air. I pulled up my head and tore off my mask, tried to catch my breath, but the ocean, the waves around me, even the beach seemed to be swaying. I cleared my ears, but something wasn’t right. I tried again, but no. My four copilots were gone, swum off. I was bobbing alone in the waves, barely able to hold upright.
I cleared my snorkel, pulled my mask back on and slowly turned towards shore. I paddled gently, without thinking or pushing, sure I’d blown my eardrum. Not great. I reached the sand and pulled my fins off, letting the water hold me up. Walking out felt like climbing into a tunnel—the noise of the crowds and the sea lions faded to the periphery. There was blackness at the edges. I sat on a rock and again tried to clear my ears, but nope. I’d definitely done something real.
They don’t teach “Never barrel-roll with sea lions in the Pacific” in freedive class. Maybe that would be too specific a lesson. But now I know. And a little Googling has taught me a perforated eardrum needs six to eight weeks to heal. I’m headed to the Florida Keys in three—I’m hoping for the accelerated program.
And it was only afterward, after more Googling, that I understood the difference between seals and sea lions. Sea lions are much bigger, and they have a habit of being occasionally aggressive around humans. The explanation I read was seals are aquatic weasels and sea lions descended from bears. I’m glad I didn’t know that as I stared face-to-face with them. They were bigger than me, much better swimmers. But they were also amazing. I’d do it again in a second. Eardrum and all.