One father-daughter team takes to the waters — pools, beaches, aquariums and marine biolabs — and along the way discovers that family travel can lead to more than just a vacation.
My 10-year-old daughter is covered in whale spit. Okay, maybe that's an exaggeration: It's water, not spit. but it did come directly from the mouth of Qinu, a 4-year-old Beluga whale with a playful streak. Over the last hour, we've pet the whales, learned about their physiology, fed them fresh fish and of course posed for pictures. But the spit take was definitely the most memorable moment of our visit to the Georgia Aquarium's Beluga & Friends Interactive Program, and the latest in an ongoing family adventure. In the eight years since I became a single dad, Alex and I have bonded over water — she was a water baby from the moment she was born. At six months old, she splashed through her baths with unbridled glee, and now, almost a decade later, she has that same ecstatic look on her face, grinning from ear-to-ear thanks to Qinu's fountain of backwash.
Alex started learning to swim at the age of three, right around the time her mother and I went our separate ways. I was determined to be a hands-on dad, so I'd pick her up from summer camp and take her across the street to the pool, where we'd play Marco Polo for hours. A shy child by nature, in water my daughter became fearless.
In the summer of 2007, just before she turned six, Alex and I embarked upon our first big adventure overseas. She was starting first grade and to mark the occasion, I took her to the Bahamas, where she swam with dolphins. There was palpable fear in her eyes as she treaded water in the ocean-fed holding pen where the dolphins, twice her size, came to swim and play with visitors.
The call of the water continued to shape our daddy-daughter Bahamian bonding. We went snorkeling on a nearby coral reef, in an area where 3-foot long nurse sharks circled below us, lured by a bait box our guides had dropped down into the water. As we held onto a rope attached to the catamaran, the small sharks gradually circled closer to the surface, until Alex was so scared that I had to take her out. I was certain she'd want nothing else to do with H2O. But when our guides got everyone onto the boat and started chumming the water to induce a serious feeding frenzy, she held tightly onto my hand and moved right next to our guide, completely transfixed. Suddenly one chomped aggressively into a fish head the guide had put on the end of a stick, and he quickly pulled it onto the edge of the boat so that we could watch it devour its prey from close range. I swear my daughter's eyes nearly popped out of her head, but afterwards she couldn't stop talking about it. By the end of the trip, she was hooked — beach, ocean and marine life became borderline obsessions, the kind of passion every parent relishes in.
As time went on, a year or two, Alex began studying environmental conservation at school, and her interest in nature and science grew. We took numerous trips to Sanibel Island (located 20 minutes from Ft Myers offFlorida's Gulf Coast), learning about animals at the Center for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife, the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center. It was on Sanibel in the summer of 2011 that I realized Alex's interest in marine life had become more than mere childhood curiosity after spending time at the Sani-bel Sea School, a center devoted to preserving Sanibel's marine life. After a tour of the facility, we were led out into the shallow, crystal clear waters near Sanibel's historic lighthouse where we met some of Sanibel's most intriguing marine life — live sand dollars, bivalves and a fighting conch whose little eyes poked out. We observed the nests of the snowy plover, an endangered shore bird, and learned why Sanibel is considered one of the world's best shelling beaches. (Basically, the barrier island sits in a prime position near where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Atlantic — the confluence churns up everything on the ocean floor.)
Chumming the waters was the beginning, and now Alex was in the research stages of curiosity. She was learning in an immersive, interactive way about the intricacies of the ocean. "It was cool that the geography of Florida and the currents brought lots of shells to Sanibel and when we caught little fish in a net and looked at them in a bucket. Well, that was the first time I got to do an experiment with marine science. I realized that I wanted to do what Sanibel Sea School does, studying the ocean and teaching people about it," she said.
If Sanibel Sea School provided the spark of Alex's marine science interest, this year's spring break trip to Bermuda stoked the fires to a blaze. We went to visit the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, an independent organization founded in 1903 whose Waterstart programs offer an introduction to marine life through a lab activities, research-based field trips and PADI scubacertification. Starting at age 12, students move up through program levels as they gain more experience. At age 16, they can apply for a three-week Marine Science Internship, which provides AAUS Scientific Diver training, an overview of statistical analysis procedures and lab protocol, and a chance to work closely with faculty. We spent the morning with Alexander "Dready" Hunter, Coordinator of Educational & Scientific Diving, to learn more about BIOS' programming. Dready, so named because he cut off his famed dreadlocks to raise $60,000 for children's charities, explained some of the organization's current projects, including studying the grasses of Bermuda's Sargasso Sea and the effects of climate change of ocean acidification. We got a quick tour of their small research laboratory, which was lined with ocean maps, various graphs charting the areas they were studying and a massive fish tank holding several of the invasive lionfish species (which are currently wreaking havoc down in the Caribbean).
Alex lit up when the BIOS team asked her if she wanted to help with their experiments to see how raising the acidity of water can impact the ability of coral reefs to grow. A variety of different coral had been placed into nine different bins and Alex helped them with their daily water testing, carefully dipping test tubes into each bin as the researchers took notes on their observations. It didn't take a genius to recognize that the cylinder pumping the water with the highest level of acidity was covered in corrosion, and it wasn't hard to imagine the long-term impact that could have on marine life. But outside the lab, Alex reveled in Dready's discovery of a sea hare (an odd black creature that looks like a cross between a snail, a bat and a manta ray), which had somehow gotten stuck under a rock near the shore. She shouted excitedly for me to come see, and cradled the creature gently in her hands.
The poignancy of the moment for Dready was obvious. "When you can get up close to the smaller stuffthat makes up the vast majority of the marine ecosystem and you can get kids fascinated by every level of it, that's of primary importance. There's nothing like seeing it first hand," Dready says, and it's true. "When a kid takes an interest in marine conservation, it justifies all the hard work we put in. That's why I do this."
Later, during a visit to the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum & Zoo, we learned about sea turtle conservation from Dr. Mark Outerbridge of the Bermuda Turtle Project. On a tour, he explained that five of the world's seven sea turtle species pass through Bermuda's waters, and that the green sea turtle is a keystone species whose population health is crucial to the area's sea grass which offers nursery-like protection for fish. Turtles have been hunted nearly to extinction, but the Bermuda Turtle Project has been studying and protecting them since 1968.
Dr. Mark introduced us to several turtles under the Aquarium's care. There was resident Hawksbill turtle "Wild Bill," who was born with a shell deformity and paralysis and had to wear a weight to achieve proper buoyancy. There was a baby Loggerhead, who was kept under a heat lamp in a small pool away from the public's eyes. And there was a gorgeous Green sea turtle that had been rescued from a fisherman who was trying to sell him on the side of the road.
Alex has dreamt of seeing sea turtles up close for years, tantalized by my own tales of snorkeling with them in Hawaii and the Riviera Maya. She's painted pictures of sea turtles, has a collection of sea turtle figurines she's collected over the years and has even listed them among her favorite animals. She practically exploded when Outerbridge asked if she'd be interested in feeding some sea turtles.
After grabbing half a dozen heads of Romaine lettuce from a walk-in cooler, he led us to the back of the Aquarium property, where a huge swimming pool-sized enclosure held five of the largest sea turtles I've ever seen — basically as big as Alex. She patiently hand-fed them, piece by piece. The turtles clamored over each other for a bite creating a totem of giant turtles with Alex dangling leaves towards their mouths.
Back home in Atlanta at the Georgia Aquarium, it suddenly occurs to me that my shy little girl isn't so little (or shy) anymore. As Animal Interactive Program Team Specialist Amanda Foster teaches us about their 4R program (Rescue, Rehabilitation, Research, Responsibility) and field research on Beluga whales in Bristol Bay, Alaska, I notice Alex listening with rapt interest and asking intelligent questions, the most important of which is, "How did you get to work at the Aquarium?"
The answer leads to a surprising revelation: Alex can start volunteering at the Aquarium in just three years, and after a year of working with the public she'll have an opportunity to move behind the scenes and work with the species of her choice.
I could see Alex cataloguing the possibilities of getting to work with whales, dolphins, otters or harbor seals, and my mind reeled with the realization that my daughter is somehow on the verge of becoming a teenager and already forming life plans. I realized our travel adventures weren't just ways to bond, they were ways to grow and expand and challenge who we are individually and as a father-daughter team
Once I led her hand-in-hand to the swimming pool; soon I'll be dropping her offto work at the world's largest aquarium and I have no doubt, she'll forge her own travel adventures along the way.
Bermuda isn't the only spot for a teachable trip — these institutions are variable clinics in inspiration.
AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY
(New York, NY)
Brought to life in the film Night At The Museum, this gem is one of the world's most celebrated museums. With 25 buildings housing 46 permanent exhibition halls that contain over 32 million specimens (including extensive anthropological collections), you'd need several nights to explore it all and even more time to participate in their extensive education programs including clinics in geology, science and nature. www.amnh.org
(Williamsburg, VA, 54 miles from Richmond)
The world's largest living history museum, with 301 acres of historically furnished buildings that authentically recreate Britain's wealthiest and most populous New World outpost. Hundreds of costumed interpreters bring the minutiae of pre-American Revolution reality to life and help children learn through participation. www.history.org
(San Francisco, CA)
Founded by physicist Frank Oppenheimer (brother of the "father of the atom bomb"), this museum received the National Science Board's 2011 Public Service Science Award, and features 500 participatory exhibits designed to immerse visitors. www.exploratorium.edu
THE FRANKLIN INSTITUTE SCIENCE MUSEUM
Opened in 1824, this is one of America's oldest centers for science education. The museum's permanent exhibits include Electricity, Changing Earth and The Franklin Airshow, which features the world's largest collection of artifacts from the Wright Brothers' workshop. www2.fi.edu
SMITHSONIAN NATIONAL AIR & SPACE MUSEUM
The largest collection of historic aviation and space artifacts in the world, including the Wright brothers' original plane The Spirit of St. Louis, the Apollo 11 command module, the Hubble Space Telescope test vehicle and hundreds of other flight-related artifacts. This museum is decked out with immersive learning labs based on the collection and conducted by aerospace engineers-in-residence. www.nasm.si.edu