I usually feel a little uncomfortable when I arrive at a zoo or animal park for the first time. I worry that I may be supporting the inhumane treatment of wild animals. But each time I've visited a zoo or park in recent years I've been pleasantly surprised and have left inspired and reassured.
Our children need to get up close and personal with wildlife in order to care for their environment.
They are not going to care about nature unless they know nature.
We recently visited Irukandji Shark and Ray Encounters at Anna Bay, Port Stephens.
You can safely get up close and personal with wildlife that you would usually not want to encounter – stingrays and sharks.
Little Eco walked away from the experience buzzing with confidence. She also walked away with an awareness of how she can help conserve our marine environment – an awareness far greater than what she would have gained from reading dozens of books or watching a suite of documentaries. Nothing compares to real-life experiential learning.
The kids changed into the wetsuits provided and popped on a pair of water shoes, the latter to hide wriggling toes so that they were not accidentally mistaken for little fish.
First stop was the aqua nursery pool, teeming with juvenile sharks and rays.
Little Eco and her friends nervously reached into the water with their feeding sticks.
They eventually went into the water, standing waist deep while one-metre-long sharks swam around their legs.
They didn't last long, quickly retreating to the shore.
I enjoyed watching their confidence grow as the guide revealed more information about the ecology and conservation of sharks and rays.
Second stop was Ray Lagoon, where they could get into the water with larger adult rays.
Their fear evolved into awe and they stepped a little deeper into the water so that they could touch a huge, two-metre, smooth ray that felt like "slimy sandpaper".
By the time Little reached the next stop – Fiddler’s Flat – all fear had dissolved and she was in love.
"Look how cute they are," she said, sitting in the water among dozens of juvenile Fiddler Rays.
There was a roped off area where the rays could retreat to, but interestingly they didn't seem bothered by all the children and seemed to be curiously exploring their visitors.
Little Eco confidently stepped into the last pool, not even hesitating when she put on a pair of gloves "so that the big sharks don’t think my fingers are fish and bite them off". She got to pat Fluffy, a three-metre Tawny Nurse Shark, and heard all about the devastating impact pollution and overfishing are having on our marine environment.
I was impressed with the quality of interpretive information provided by our guide.
A few days after our visit I asked Little Eco what she learnt:
"Don’t litter. Pick up rubbish when you see it.
Don’t eat flake because it is shark and many sharks are going extinct. And shark is poisonous [she’s referring to mercury accumulation in large and long-lived fish].
Sharks and rays don't want to hurt us. They are really important and if we want fish we need to leave sharks in the ocean."
They're pretty important take home messages. And our guide obviously did a good job explaining the key conservation issues if an eight year old can still remember them days later.
I know my comments about eating sustainable food or avoiding plastic often don’t make sense to Little Eco. I'm grateful that her encounter with some of our ocean’s majestic creatures has helped her see the connection between her actions and the health of our planet.
Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 5th September 2015.