Last weekend, 22 kids and 20 parents from AFiN spent the night in the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi. We arrived in time for a pleasant dinner in the coastal breeze at the aquarium. This gave everyone a little while to get to know the new members of our group and enjoy the evening weather. Because this was one of our first 2 outings of the year, when it came time to divide our group in half for our tour, I chose the groups and tried to divide up best friends and siblings just for the 2 hour tour. I thought this would encourage the kids to mix up a little more and make some new friends. I think this is a good way to promote group bonding rather than allowing kids who already know each other to pair off. It also helps siblings make friends with other kids instead of relying on only each other as a buddy.

Our group started out at the shark and stingray touch tank. The rays are slimy and soft, while the sharks are rough. I taught the kids about the sharks’ skin being covered in denticles which are more similar to teeth than skin (thus the name). They protect the shark from parasites and injuries. Both sharks and rays have skeletons made of cartilage rather than bone. That is why you find sharks’ teeth as fossils, but not skeletons.Though, it was frustrating to divide parents up so that one was with one sibling and one went with the other. All in all, I think it worked fairly well because everyone seemed to be having a good time and talking to everyone in their group.

Next we went to see the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle which is native to Texas. The turtle at the aquarium is a rehabilitated animal that can’t be released back into the wild. Kemps’ Ridley Sea Turtles are on the endangered species list. A couple of summers ago, we went to South Padre during the summer to try to watch a ridley sea turtle hatchling release. We missed the release, but we did get to visit hatchlings and injured turtles in a rehabilitation facility in the area. We talked with the kids about sea turtles’s diets and how one of their favorite foods is jellyfish. If you look at a plastic grocery sack in the water, it floats in a shape that makes it look exactly like a jellyfish. Sea turtles frequently eat floating plastic bags and other trash thinking that they are food. The turtles will take a small test bite out of almost any floating plastic trash. The bite looks like a small diamond shaped hole. Look for these holes in plastic on the beach next time you are there. You will be shocked by how common they are. Unfortunately, all of the bites of plastic build up in the sea turtle’s stomach making it feel full, so it quits eating. Many many sea turtles (and dolphins, whales, etc…) die of starvation because their bellies are full of plastic and balloons. PLEASE recycle or dispose of all trash properly and avoid using plastic bottles and keep balloons indoors.

It was so nice to see the families spending time together outdoors enjoying an upclose look at nature. One of the favorite exhibits at the aquarium was the dolphin tank. The kids loved getting to hear about the biology, echolocation and conservation of dolphins as well as getting a close look at them. Many people don’t approve of dolphins in aquariums, but I personally feel that kids are more likely to conserve the environment if they are attached to the animals that live in it. As long as the marine mammals are captively bred, and as long as the aquarium is accredited with the association of zoos and aquariums (a difficult accreditation to achieve), I think that the ability to see small marine mammals up close will help save the lives of many many more in the wild. That said, you should watch “the Cove” withOUT your children if you are interested in this very compelling issue.

In addition to seeing and learning about dolphins, the kids got to see how a dolphin rescue works. I was lucky enough to have helped on a rehabilitation team with the Marine Mammal Stranding Network in Galveston for an injured dolphin a decade ago. The dolphin made a full recovery and was released back into the wild. It was so fun getting to tell them about my own experiences releasing a dolphin. If you find a stranded marine animal on the Texas coast, immediately call 1-800-9-MAMMAL.

After visiting the outdoor touch tank while the sun was setting, we got to see an alligator and an injured Bald Eagle. Then we headed inside for a behind the scenes tour. I got to tell the kids about volunteering at the Moody Gardens aquarium where I dove in the tanks to feed the fish and sharks. If you are a diver and live near an aquarium, this is a really fun way to volunteer your time. There is nothing quite like diving inside of an aquarium to feed swarms of fish while people watch you from the other side of the glass. Definitely an experience that provides some good stories to tell.

Behind the scenes, we got to see baby sharks and rays, mermaid’s purses (common name for shark egg cases), horseshoe crabs (that really do have blue blood because their blood contains hemocyanin instead of hemoglobin as most animals have), sea horses, and many other interesting critters waiting to be put on display in the aquarium. We also got to see how the animals are fed, their food, and what the tanks look like from above. The child in this picture is a great example of what research is now showing. Introducing kids to nature photography is a great way to get them to connect to the natural world. They have to stand very still and look carefully at the animal, plant or landscape that they are trying to photograph. This helps them focus on the details which encourages them to connect with what they are looking at. It can also entice a child that is very attached to screens and technology to use technology to explore the outside world. It is a great gateway into nature.

After a few more exhibits, everyone settled down into their sleeping bags for the night. Technically the lights went out at 11pm, but it proved very hard for the kids to sleep with the excitement of huge fish swimming by in the dark. I think most of the kids (and parents) were awake well into the night, but I think it was worth it.

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