Finding Nemo, Dory and Myself at The Georgia Aquarium

I got a smooch from Imaq!

I spent the last couple of days at the Georgia Aquarium, participating in some animal encounters. Yes, I found Nemo, and I found Dory, but I also think of Georgia Aquarium as a place where I found myself.

Last summer, I went to the Georgia Aquarium for the first time. I originally learned about it from National Geographic magazine, which was a favorite of my dad’s and mine. I still have some of his very old copies and some of my National Geographic School Bulletin kids issues- my parents always got a subscription for me. When I learned that Georgia Aquarium offered an otter encounter, I had my plan! I wrote about that experience last year (click here for that post). It was and it remains a place where I strongly feel Ben’s absence and presence. ALS took so much from Ben, including the opportunity to enjoy places. It took many things from me, too, including the ability to share experiences with him. I remember that last year at the Aquarium was the first time I felt real anger that he could not have lived to enjoy it. I still feel that anger and sadness, but I also feel him and look for signs that he is with me. Going to the Georgia Aquarium is something positive to do at this time of year, since summer is a difficult for me, filled with memories of Ben’s last summer, spent in the hospital, and the anniversary of his departure from this world.

I cannot rave and gush enough about the Aquarium. It is a truly spectacular facility. The research it conducts and is engaged in, along with the care it provides for its residents, is supremely impressive. I easily spent two full days there and I could have returned for more. I could watch the sea and river otters for hours and I don’t know how long I spent absolutely mesmerized by the beluga whales. I saw the dolphin show twice because it is fabulous and the dolphins and their human trainers are astounding! Standing in the Ocean Voyager tunnel while huge whale sharks, manta rays, sea turtles and a host of other magnificent fish swim overhead and around me is daunting and yet awe-inspiring! It’s even fun to touch the purple sea stars! I loved watching the divers wave to the children from the huge tank, where they are surrounded by the whale sharks- the kids’ reactions are priceless! There was a little boy of no more than four years old and wearing a whale shark t-shirt who told me all about whale sharks as he waited so excitedly to see one for the first time and his parents laughed as they explained that they planned the visit just for him to see the whale sharks. For these children, whether they pursue a career dealing with sea life, form a commitment to protect and be kind to the planet and its inhabitants, or enjoy the wonder around them, there is no doubt that the Aquarium will leave an unforgettable and positive impression.

I found that this year, I had a very hard time with the penguins. I did not spend much time watching them. For Ben and me, penguins were very much “our” animal. We collected all kinds of penguin things. At one time, I had planned a visit to a local aquarium where they were kindly going to accommodate Ben’s wheelchair in a special encounter area. Unfortunately, we couldn’t make it and never had another opportunity to visit.  Last summer, I did two wonderful penguin encounters at the Georgia Aquarium, but I struggled with guilt that Ben never had the chance to actually meet a penguin. Penguins are truly delightful creatures, and I was surprised to learn that they are kind of referred to as having temperaments like cats- if they don’t warm to their trainer, they will not do what’s asked of them! As adorable as they are, and as fun as my memories are, I find that I cannot enjoy them as much as I did when I was with Ben. It hurts to watch them. This strikes me as odd, because there are so many things that I do for Ben, in his memory, because I know he would love them and I feel like I enjoy them through his eyes. The dolphin shows are that way for me. I feel Ben’s excitement and I think I cry at the shows because I am overwhelmed by conflicting emotions. I feel like the turtles send a little hello from Ben. Maybe the fact that we collected penguins, particularly when they were couples, makes penguins different. I suppose I should have learned by now that grief is unpredictable in this way.

My passion (or maybe obsession) with otters is my own. And, my desire to interact with animals is something that has always been my own. Ben always found it endearing and a bit fascinating that I had such a deep connection with my pets and that I had boundless love for animals. My dad and I shared that love for animals. The Georgia Aquarium holds a kind of magic for me because it enables me to meet and interact with some of the animals I adore. I don’t think I ever realized how much that means to me down to my core. Of course, it’s fun to meet and greet the animals, but it is a deeply emotional experience for me and one where I feel like I have really found myself. I love to learn about the animals, but I learn even more just watching the staff interact with them and talk about their distinct personalities and preferences. There is so much love, respect and passion there, and it fills my heart to get a glimpse of that and to be a part of it in encounter programs, and even by talking to the staff and volunteers in the halls of the Aquarium. Although I traveled there by myself, I rarely felt lonely or alone- I was so surrounded by love and the spiritual presence of Ben and my dad. My love of the Georgia Aquarium has strengthened my personal dedication to support the efforts of this facility to raise awareness and understanding of, and to protect, sea animals and their environment.

That’s cutie Brighton next to me.

My buddy is Cruz.

I know that Ben would absolutely love doing the encounters, though he did not swim so I don’t think he would have opted for the beluga whale encounter. For me, however, being at the Aquarium and participating in the interactions is almost a spiritual experience. It is calming and almost meditative, yet energizing, to watch the animals and to learn about them. Feeding and practicing various behaviors with them is pure delight. I find myself wondering how and if I could work with animals after I retire from teaching.

I do look for signs that Ben is watching me. Maybe they are coincidences, but I choose to believe that they are signs, or maybe pixie dust! I got a couple during this visit. I arranged two sea otter encounters, because one just wasn’t enough, and during the first, I asked about Mara and Gibson, the two pups about whom I had been reading and watching videos since they were rescued and given forever homes by the Georgia Aquarium. Seeing them was going to be a highlight of my visit. I was told how to spot them in the habitat, and I was eagerly anticipating seeing them. During my second sea otter encounter, while we were being told about sea otters, a little otter saw one of the trainers with food and she serenaded us with what I will call a symphony to try to get some food. The trainer smirked and tried to hide, but the otter was not fooled. I suspected that it was one of the pups and I asked if it was Mara or Gibson- it was Mara. I got goosebumps! Not only did I get to see the pups, but we were able to feed them. I was so excited I almost cried. They are as adorable as I had imagined. And, louder! Magic was on my side that they were ready to participate in the encounters. Or, was it Ben? Maybe both!

The beluga whale interaction was one of the most extraordinary experiences I have ever had. It was literally out of my comfort zone to wear a bathing suit and wet suit. It was also daunting to get into the water, since the interaction took place in what was actually the very top of the belugas’ habitat- that is very deep water with five beluga whales and three harbor seals. I know how to swim, but I was still scared of falling off the rim (think Nemo and Dory and the drop-off). Once face to face with the belugas, I was completely in love. That huge “smiling” head popped up unexpectedly and simultaneously startled and delighted me. Kissing and being kissed by Imaq, the Aquarium’s largest beluga (around 3000 pounds and 14’ long), was the opportunity of a lifetime, as was having (and losing!) a splash party with Maple. The rest of the world fell away for me as I watched, worked and played with these big belugas. I have never felt like that before.

There are staff photographers at all the encounter programs. As I reviewed my photos from the beluga interaction, I was not at all surprised to see in almost every single photo my huge smile and laughter. What really caught my eye was one photograph in particular, in which I have a certain smile with my tongue through my teeth and my shoulders hunched. It was an expression that Ben loved and always imitated because he said it showed my utter delight. Yes, the photographer took tons of photos, but the fact that she captured this one on film is, to me, a sign from Ben that he knew this was where I was meant to be and most myself, and that he was happy for and present with me. I am going to print this photo.

This was an expression that Ben loved and always immitated. That it was captured on film is, for me, a sign from Ben.

My dad would have loved this experience, and he would have been proud of me for not letting my fear keep me from following my curiosity and participating in the program. I am generally a nervous person. I’m sure my dad was watching me and I’m grateful that I can feel his presence in these moments. When I was young, he took me to the Coney Island Aquarium, and although I was so excited, I was also terrified of the whales swimming head first towards the glass as if they could break through. I was also repulsed by the octopus, because I expected it to look like the cute cartoon characters I had seen. I will always remember my dad’s laughter at my reactions to the animals, as well as the love we shared for animals.

I must also mention the Sea Lion encounter, because it was absolutely wonderful. Our group leader and the team were inspiring to watch because of the rapport they have with the sea lions and, as I have noted, the love they have for them. I look at the photos and see my joy. It was the joy that I always found when I looked at photos of Ben during our visits to Walt Disney World. It’s pure and deep. It transcended his physical appearance.

I feel very lucky and grateful for these opportunities. They are part of my treasure trove of new memories and symbolic of how I am moving forward but carrying my loved ones in my heart as I journey ahead. It is also a wonderful feeling to discover ways that I can find peace and find myself. Going to the Georgia Aquarium is likely going to be an annual adventure that, in my own way, I will share with Ben and my dad.