Oh Baja... I'm not going to say you were an easy love, but eventually you broke me down (the ocean helped with that). When I first learned about the global field program, every student I talked to raved about how great Belize was and how much they recommend it. I'd already had an amazing time in Belize volunteering at a manatee and monkey rehabilitation center one summer and now looked forward to going back. Then, during a staff event at NC Zoo, I was talking to our Curator of Conservation, who also teaches several EE courses, about Belize and how much I was looking forward to returning. She told me Belize was great, but I should reconsider Baja and mentioned whale sharks. Whale sharks?! I didn't know that was part of the trip! As soon as I heard, my heart was set on Baja. When I found out I was in Baja II, I was ecstatic. The desert was beautiful, but stressful, and my heart was finally happy when I saw the ocean. Then, on the first day, we spotted two whale sharks right in front of the house! I had to get in the water! I swam out there and tried to spot them with a mask, but it was too murky to see anything clearly. I popped my head up and gasped. There was a whale shark fin right behind another student! She screamed and then I screamed, because when we went to rest our legs, we both hit a whale shark! (Sorry, Mr. Whale Shark!). I swam back in, so happy that I actually saw a whale shark! I couldn't wait for the chance to see them again.
The day finally came that I'd been waiting for the entire trip. We boarded the boats and headed out to find the whale sharks! It felt like a lot of time had passed and we hadn't seen any, so I was becoming a bit discouraged, but still held out hope. Then, our driver spotted one! Other students jumped in and we could see them swimming right next to one! They got back in and raved about how big it was and how cool it was to swim next to one. Our driver said it was just a "tiny one", but he sure looked big! We continued to search around and then saw another one. I jumped in, took off and was swimming next to a whale shark! It was absolutely incredible. They were so much faster than I imagined. It was tough to keep up! We spent the rest of the day finding whale sharks and swimming with them. It was one of the best days of my life. I will forever be grateful I was able to have such an amazing experience with such awe inspiring animals.
Being able to interact with them just made me realize how lucky I am. I've been inspired by animals for as long as I can remember. I've been able to have interactions with many different animals in the wild - lions, manatees, and now whale sharks. Every time I get to have these experiences, I am inspired to save these animals and do my best to make the world a better place for them. I also realize how many people don't get to have these experiences and then I am overwhelmed at how difficult it is to inspire people to save something they may know have never even seen. Conservation is such a difficult, multifaceted topic. I really wish there was a way to get every child out into the wilderness to see animals, but I know that’s impossible. Until then, we will have to grapple the difficult task of inspiring future generations.