Aquariums, zoos, and wildlife parks were some of our favorite attractions on the trip and we were privileged to experience them on every continent. It seemed strange then the other day to visit our own Georgia Aquarium, the world’s largest, which is right in our backyard. We had been before after its 2005 opening and after 2 years had saved up enough dough to make a return visit (let’s just say it ain’t cheap). Our incentive was not a sudden desire to see fish or to reconnect with our time on the road, but to share the wonders of the marine world with Tom’s sister Kat, her husband, Jon, and their two little boys, Luke and Harrison, who came for a visit from Utah.
The little guys were enthralled and Kieran and Asher were happy to retrace our steps of a few years back. We saw whale sharks, beluga whales, sea dragons, and puffer fish. We touched skates, rays, shrimp, and sea stars. Our few hours at the aquarium were fun, mainly because of the company, but they highlighted just how spoiled we have become over the past year. We swam with dolphins in the ocean, chased penguins and sea lions on beaches, shared a campground with a warthog, got up close and personal with the Big Five, and witnessed the virtual aquarium that is a Vietnamese street market. We liked encountering animals in the wild best, but our favorite artificial wildlife venues were small, quirky places like the neighborhood zoo in San Antonio de Areco, Argentina, run by a family of four and featuring a feisty armadillo, and the Panda Conservation Center in Chengdu, China where we were subjected to a bizarre educational video and wandered through mazes of lazy bears. With memories like this, it’s hard for a big, glitzy, sterile aquarium to compete.
Harder even than the memories are the awareness that outside our domestic comfort zone, many of the exotic creatures we pay so much to see in captivity are disappearing in the wild. We knew this before we took our trip and heard many times over the pleas of conservationists, but they never rang so true or seemed so immediate as they do now that we’ve visited these vanishing habitats. The issue has become not just saving critters but saving people whose livelihoods depend on the environment.
As if he could read my mind, Abudulla Saheem sent an email last night describing his personal efforts to shake the world out of its environmental slumber. A native of the vanishing coral reef nation of Maldives and current resident of the Indonesian island of Bali (one of our favorites), he has watched in horror over the past decade as 20% of Bali’s coastline has disappeared and miles upon miles of coral reef have been destroyed. Last year he decided he had to do something to stop the madness and embarked on a 480 km snorkel around Bali with his 9 year old son.
Saheem understands the criticism we and other family travelers take from those who think we are endangering our kids; he took similar heat from the media for including his son in his swim. But the truth for parents like Saheem and Tom and I is that the greater danger for our kids is growing up oblivious or insensitive to the world’s problems and their role in them. Our children have met and served beside individuals who refuse to accept the world’s injustices and do their own small part in reversing them: Laurie Mackenzie in China, Ponheary Ly in Cambodia, Becky Douglas and Padma Venkataraman in India, and Simona Stewart in Romania. Now Saheem has invited Dax and McKane to join him on his 4-month, 2500 km swim from Malaysia to Bali, during which he will document the deteriorating condition of the ocean’s reefs, educate locals as to how they can help preserve them, and “let the world know many people are suffering because of the environmental challenges we are facing.” What a truly amazing opportunity that would be for our boys. Maybe we’ll have to get the passports out and dust off our wetsuits.
If you’d like to check out what Saheem is doing, visit his website at www.boilingearth.org. And if like us you’ve been thinking of visiting Maldives, he urges you to hurry. He predicts it will be gone in a decade.