This blog was written by our summer intern, Alecia Jurado.
I would like to share a memory with you—a memory that has influenced me my entire life.
One sunny day in Tampa Bay, Florida, my dad decided to take me out on the boat for an “adventure.” I was eight years old, with wide eyes and a seemingly endless supply of built-up energy. We went to a grass flat not far from bustling downtown Tampa. I slid off the small flats boat into the shallow water below and a huge plume of silt rose up around my feet in the previously undisturbed bottom. I distinctly remember complaining and whining about having to wear my water shoes. At this age, I despised wearing any type of shoe, especially in the water.
After my dad situated the boat, he handed me two nets and off we went, wading through the grass, stirring up a trail of mud and dipping our nets the whole way. I was amazed by the amount of critters that came up after each time I dipped my little net. There were snails, tiny fish, shrimp, sea cucumbers, pipefish and all types of little crabs. Each time I brought the net up there was something new and exciting to look at. I splashed over to my dad with every snail and crab I found, asking questions and trying to remember everything he said so that I could repeat each and every word to my friends at school the next day. We spent an entire afternoon out on those flats. A few hours later, I had sunburned shoulders, a grimy net and, much to my delight, a lost pair of water shoes that had disappeared somewhere in the deep mud.
Just as my dad was about to drag me back to the boat, something truly remarkable showed up in my net. Amidst all the seagrass and mud was a small, fragile brown seahorse. I might as well have won the lottery. This little guy excited me more than any Barbie I had ever owned! I carefully brought him back to the boat where my dad filled a bucket with warm bay water. I watched as the seahorse clung to a floating piece of grass after I gently placed him in the bucket. He was beautiful. I had seen seahorses in aquariums before, larger and more colorful than this one, but to me there was no comparison. The aquarium seahorses seemed unreal, separated from my world by glass. But this guy was right in front of me. I could see his gills fluttering under the water, and feel his tiny muscular tail as I picked him up. At that very moment I thought—“I am the coolest second-grader on earth because I caught a seahorse!” Needless to say, my priorities were not entirely organized but what else can you expect from an eight year old? To my extreme disappointment, my dad made me set the fragile seahorse free and explained why it was important for him to return to his home on the shallow grass flat. It was the beginning of a lesson that I still embrace and share today.
I’ve found over one hundred seahorses since then, and I’ve experienced some pretty amazing things while growing up along the Gulf and spending time vacationing and studying in the Bahamas. But to me, nothing compares to this hot sunny day because, for the first time, I experienced a feeling of closeness to the ocean and the mysterious world within it. When I held that tiny seahorse, I knew I was feeling something that some people go a lifetime without. I caught a seahorse and at the time that made me the coolest second-grader ever, but today it makes me a passionate marine enthusiast and educator. I want people to feel the closeness I felt, to witness these creatures in their own habitat and see that our worlds are not so far apart.
I’ve always believed that the inspiration to care about our environment comes from being immersed in it. I spent many of my summers collecting juvenile seahorses, puffer fish and sea stars, so that I could walk down the beach and show all of the kids and families what was swimming right next to them. I witnessed the amazement in their eyes and saw the way these little critters impacted each of them. All those lazy sunbathers and sand-covered kids spent at least an hour in the water looking around as they were swimming, trying to catch the amazing animals they never knew were there. One day, a little boy pulled me aside and announced that he decided to stop peeing in the ocean because he didn’t think the baby “seahorsies” would like it. Unfortunately, the pool was still fair game since “no seahorsies live there.”
I’ll admit that little boy urine is not exactly polluting our oceans, but what if close-up encounters with these fragile creatures have the same effect on other people who are leaving trash on the beach or throwing garbage in the water? Something this simple could be the answer to so many of the problems our ocean faces today. After all, how can people relate to something that they have only seen behind glass or on paper? How can we strive to change our lifestyle habits for something that has always been out-of-sight, out-of-mind?
We live in a world that allows us to do almost anything with the touch of a button. Kids spend all their playtime on the computer when it used to be spent in the backyard. Adults don’t even have to venture outside to exercise. The great outdoors have been categorized for explorers and adventurers that we can all watch from the comfort of our living room couch. Yet, thousands of people still move to the coast every year, and National Parks still remain the top tourist destinations of the world. I’ve heard people say that our technology-obsessed generation fuels today’s environmental issues—that our lack of interest or desire to be a part of nature is what prevents us from preserving it. I disagree. Humanity hasn’t lost interest with nature; we’ve just lost contact with it.
I am fortunate enough to know how much beauty this world has to offer and I feel like it’s my personal responsibility to provide other people the opportunity to reconnect with nature and see it they way I have since I was eight years old. Though I didn’t know it at the time, that tiny seahorse was the beginning of the love and passion that would lead me to where I am today, an intern at National Geographic and a passionate environmental and marine ambassador.
So it makes me wonder, what if I could give this type of experience to dozens of other kids? Fifteen years from now, where could they be?
This is why it’s so important to get people outside and to make them aware of what nature has to offer. Discovering that these amazing creatures exist just outside our backdoor, at our favorite beach or within our family campground is what motivates people to start caring and to make more sustainable decisions. It’s initiatives like the Great Nature Project that are striving to do this very thing. But it doesn’t take an international project to make a difference. I can assure you that an excited thirteen-year-old girl running down the beach with a bucket full of “seahorsies” will work just fine.
By Alecia Jurado, National Geographic Education Intern