18 October 2008

SEE the Wild

Like a lot of kids, I fell in love with the ocean at an early age. I was a card carrying member of the Cousteau Society and a sticker bearing the Calypso logo adorned my bicycle’s down tube. Wherever I went, I had the ocean on my mind.

I’d sit in front of my small saltwater aquarium and imagine being the plastic diver bubbling up from the bottom, finding the treasure, swimming with the sharks.

Jacques himself sent me newsletters every so often. Along with my fish tank and occasional trips to the American Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Ocean Life, I kept my dreams alive between real visits to the seashore.
There’s nothing quite like the real thing. Whether mating horseshoe crabs or nesting sea turtles on the beach, dolphins bow riding or sharks roaming a reef, being there with wild animals on their terms is unforgettable. It helps us define who we are and what our ocean planet is all about.

We while away the time between these encounters with stunning high definition documentaries, brilliantly written accounts of nature and mini ocean ecosystems behind glass. But for me, those are a tease. The real thing is what I want.

We know that millions of nature lovers, converging on a place, can ruin the very nature they came for. From this dilemma emerged the concept of “ecotourism” which seeks to “leave no trace”, respects both people and nature and generally condones smaller groups. Think kayaks, not cruise ships.

Nowadays “conservation tourism” raises the stakes. It’s all those things, but has an explicit purpose to benefit wild, endangered species and places.

It’s goal is to connect you with a wild animal, say a shark or a sea turtle--maybe even a coral reef--with the end result being a win for the species, for you and for the local community. It’s the kind of nature travel that, when it’s successful, removes the threats, rebuilds nature and restores abundance.

I meet people everywhere I go who have a good story about how a chance face to face meeting with a wild sea turtle, shark or whale changed their life. They’re carrying the memory around with them like that Calypso sticker. They are lifetime members of the See the Wild Club and don’t even know it.

When we see the wild, on its terms, we’re simultaneously humbled and inspired. One animal to another, sharing a planet, trying to coexist. The lessons we take away from those encounters are deep and personal. They make us wonder. And they stick with us, help get us through.

So, go on. Your aquarium and flat-screen high-def TV will be there when you get back to stoke the memories of where you were.

Just get out there. See the wild.

[To learn more about seeing wild turtles in conservation tourism hotspots, visit SEE Turtles]

Dr. Wallace J. Nichols has a deep passion for nature and the ocean and he shares his connection with the world through photos, film, research, writing, art, and a blog on his LIVBLUE blog.