Tag Archives: Roadschool
May 25, 2013

Whale Sharks

Whale Shark, Ningaloo Reef, Australia

Whale Shark, Ningaloo Reef, Australia
Picture 1 of 16

“Great idea,” Owen (my 23 year old son who’s off doing his thing in the world) commented when we told him we wanted to swim with whale sharks.  “All of you in open waters, hundreds of feet deep, swimming with sharks larger than school buses. What could possibly go wrong?”  Truth is, Emmi and I wondered the same thing.  They are huge, and Emmi is pretty tiny, and I’m, well, not tiny, but still, they are really big. And they are, after all, sharks.

Austin and a whale shark, Ningaloo Reef, Australia

But it was Austin’s 16th birthday request, and so it was to be.  That’s the deal in our family. I adopted the idea from a client, back years ago when I had clients and my kids were still young, that on their 16th birthday, they could choose an adventure and I’d do it with them. There are rules and limitations of course, and it requires some mutual planning, but if it’s doable and within reason, that’s their big pay-out.

Austin was 12 when he learned about whale sharks and started planning.  Now, here we are, in remote western Australia, in a tiny outback town called Exmouth, the jumping off point for all things sharking on Ningaloo Reef.  Yep, that’s what they call it: sharking.

Exmouth itself is half the story. The town came into existence because the US military, during WW II, decided a refueling station was needed, and for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, selected this little outpost on a pristine reef as the perfect spot. They built a base, complete with a water tower (which was never used but was erected to make American soldiers feel more at home in the Outback), a bowling alley, and standard issue US military barracks. A tiny little town evolved to support the base, even establishing the point on the edge of town where cars moved from the left side of the road to the right in recognition of this American outpost.  Eventually, the US military abandoned the base – just shutting off the lights and walking away – leaving Exmouth to reinvent itself. The abandoned barracks became a traveler’s inn, and whale sharking and diving on the reef became the new source of revenue and prosperity.

We did what we came to do. We forked out the requisite small fortune and went sharking.

And I am here to tell you, it was worth every penny and every moment of trepidation.

It’s a funny dance, this sharking thing.  A plane flies overhead and spots the creatures, directing the boat captain to the vicinity. On signal, a group of ten “sharkers” jumps in the water and assembles itself into a pre-arranged order (which my group never seemed to fully grasp) and when done correctly, the whale shark comes swimming through the tunnel, almost like kids at the end of the soccer game running through the throngs of proud parents.  Unless the shark has other ideas. Then at the direction of the guide, the sharkers start swimming with the shark or around the shark or away from the shark, trying to stay with the amazing creature while also keeping the requisite distance – 3 meters from the body and 4 meters from the tail.

Trust me when I tell you that being any closer than four meters from that massive tail is something of a death wish.

Our first time in the water, it all worked just as planned. And I swear that massive, beautiful creature heard me mutter “holy f***king shit” when I saw him. We locked eyes as he swam by, as though to say, “yeah, I hear that all the time.”

Our next encounter, same drill. In the water, get in position, guide spots shark. But this time, the shark had other ideas. He took off swimming in the other direction, leaving us to catch up. This time, his swimming abilities and mine were not in the same league. Not even close.  The kids stayed right with him, but I was the forgotten bait, dragging up the rear. The kind and handsome guide in the dinghy took pity on me and towed me back to the group.

I was determined that would not happen again.

Two more encounters, each time same drill, and each time, “holy f***king shit” when I saw the shark. I couldn’t help it. There are no words to describe these magnificent creatures.  I’ve snorkeled the Great Barrier reef and seen some amazing things. I’ve been in a cage encircled by feeding sharks. I’ve had the privilege to swim with dolphins. None of it compares.

They are massive, yes, and they are beautiful, with unique patterns of spots all over their huge bodies. But it’s more than that. They swim with a grace and a power that is almost spiritual. They lock eyes with you, lazily open their massive mouths (easily 3 – 4 feet wide) and strain the krill from the water, then silently move on.

It’s magic.  And we were there to see it.

Oh, I did have one more encounter with the handsome dinghy captain, after swimming with one of the sharks I was a bit slow getting back to the boat. Once again, he came to the rescue, this time hauling me into the dinghy and giving me a lift. Trust me when I say there’s nothing ladylike about being hauled into a dinghy, but I didn’t care. I’d just been swimming with whale sharks.


(Photos courtesy of Three Islands, the magnificent outfitter we spent the day with. Luke, our photographer, was stellar.  The other cool creatures pictured — including turtle, reef shark and octopus — were spotted during our morning snorkel before heading out to the outer reef.)



June 17, 2011

Kid Wisdom

Glow Worm Cave, North Island New ZealandFriends and wisdom show up in some of the most unexpected places.  I’ve recently  discovered a terrific Facebook group, Families on the Move, and this poem appeared there over the weekend from Mojito Mother.  (I’m captivated simply by the name and her blog: Mojito Mother — Putting the MOJO Back into a Mother’s Life.)

Raising kids is hard, at least if you want to do it well.  Teaching them, mentoring them, knowing when to dial it up then dial it down. It’s a balancing act, and all of us struggle to figure out how to do it right. I remember almost 15 years ago when my god-daughter (who was around 15 at the time) observed “I think Mom needs to set more boundaries for me. I need them.” It was one of those notes-to-self moments.

Now, all these years later, you’d think I’d know something after wearing the  MOM badge for over twenty years, but three kids and a step-daughter, and I’m still learning. This piece from a child’s perspective hit at just the right time for me — funny how fate works it out that way sometimes — and I  thought it should be shared.

Don’t spoil me. I know quite well that I ought not to have asked for it.

I”m testing you. Don’t be afraid to be firm with me. I prefer it…. it makes me feel more secure.

Don’t correct me in front of people if you can help it. I’ll take much more notice if you talk to me in private.

Don’t make me feel that my mistakes are sins. It upsets my sense of values.

Don’t be too upset if I say “I hate you.” It isn’t that I hate you; I only need your attention.

Don’t protect me from consequences. I need to learn that way.

Don’t take too much notice of small ailments. Sometimes they get me the attention I want.

Don’t nag. If you do, I shall have to protect myself by appearing deaf.

Don’t make rash promises. Remember that I feel badly let down when they are broken.

Don’t forget that I cannot explain myself as well as I should like. This is why I am not always accurate.

Don’t tax my honesty too much. I am easily frightened into telling lies.

Don’t be inconsistent. That completely confuses me and makes me lose my faith in you.

Don’t put me off when I ask you questions. If you do, you will find that I stop asking and seek my information elsewhere.

Don’t tell me my fears are silly. They are terribly real and you can do much to understand.

Don’t ever think it beneath your dignity to apologize to me. An honest apology makes me feel surprisingly warm to you.

Don’t forget how quickly I am growing up. It must be very difficult for you to keep pace with me but please try.

Don’t forget that I love experimenting. I couldn’t get along without it, so please put up with it.

Don’t forget that I can’t thrive without lots of love. But I don’t need to tell you that…. do I?

– Anonymous

January 18, 2010

Making Connections . . . and Making It Matter

Some days, magic just happens, and I’m reminded why we’ve embarked on our 21st century roadschool adventure.  Today was one of those days.

It’s Martin Luther King Day, and I knew we wanted to make it matter, but in a hands-on-real-life-to-me kind of way, not the worksheets and I Have a Dream posters they’ve come home with in years past.  And as I suspected, they’d paid attention in school, so knew the basics cold and could recite them perfectly.  But there’s so much more to the story . . . Like, why did it matter?  When in the context of history did Dr. King march?  And what does “march” mean, anyway?    Why did he do it . . .why did he need to do it?  What was the world like then, and how have things changed…or have they?

We tackled it all, starting with a brief review the timeline of historical events…the Civil War, then WW II, then the Civil Rights Movement.  They immediately remembered Dorie Miller, who they came to know in our WW II work, the black man who saved so many, including his commanding officer, during the attack, but was passed over for recognition because of his color.  We talked about hatred, and drew the connections between the Klan and the Holocaust, another dark period in history that they came to know so well during our WW II study and our subsequent visit to the Holocaust Museum in DC.  We then watched Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech on YouTube, and talked about standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial — as we just did on our last adventure — and picturing the crowds outstretched before him.  We watched Walter Chronkite announce his tragic assignation, and talked about the media’s role in reporting these historic moments, then looked at pictures of the Lorraine Motel, in Memphis, just minutes from my hometown and family members they know and love.  When we saw Jesse Jackson standing with Dr. King, we talked about his role in black history, and pulled up segments from election night 2008 in Chicago, when Obama was elected and all America — and the world — watched his speech from Grant Park, a spot we’d just seen when we visited Chicago a couple of short months ago.  We watched Jesse Jackson weep as Obama spoke of change, and looked back at the young pictures of Jackson standing with King.  They drew the connections of hatred, and discussed the similarities between the Klan, the Nazis, and today’s terrorists.

We watched videos of Congressman John Lewis, talking about the role of young Americans to question their nation, their leaders, and their future, when they believe wrongs are being done.  I watched them closely as they listened to Congressman Lewis remind them that it’s young people — folks just like them — who actually force change in this country,and in the world.  They heard him, and were empowered.

Then we spent the afternoon watching the movie, Remember the Titans.  A family favorite, this time we watched it with a different eye.  We heard the reference to Dr. King, and talked about it.  We considered what it was like for a black coach to move into a white neighborhood, and talked about what motivated the owner of the diner to refuse service.  And mostly, we talked about the transformation of the story’s main characters as they — just as Dr. King discussed — discovered the content of the character, not the color of their skin, of their fellow team mates. And we noted that, just as Congressman Lewis had said, it was the young people of the community — not the adults — who forced the change that brought unity and quelled the hatred.

We brought history to life today, in our own little corner of the world, and we connected it to the places we’ve been, the stories we know, and our own life experiences.  We explored social justice, global connections, and our place as community stewards.  It was a good day.  Somehow, I think Dr. King would’ve approved.