On grand opening day of the Petty Harbour Mini-Aquarium in the active fishing community of Petty Harbour, Newfoundland, Maya was going to pee her pants with excitement. Nine-year-old Maya had lived in Petty Harbour her whole life. Fifteen minutes from the capital city of St. John’s, Maya and her sister both wiggled with anticipation for the doors to open while listening to the speeches. “Can we go in yet?” she whispers while pulling on her mom’s jacket. “Come on!”
“Shhh,” whispers her mom, “just a couple of more minutes”. They waited huddled under a pink kid-sized umbrella in the light rain amongst the crowd of 200 or more locals, Townies, tourists and media cameras.
Once the doors opened, the Mini-Aquarium flooded with people.
Maya, bright eyed, quickly darted on her tip-toes between towering adults and their kids past the crowd and into the aquarium. She immediately found the touch tanks, open topped tanks that you can put your hands into and gently touch the hardy local animals, like sea stars.
She gasped and her jaw dropped. She laid eyes on this purple five-armed creature that she recognized only from the Little Mermaid and ocean colouring books. Maya had never seen a sea star before.
Kelsey, a staff interpreter on her first real day on the job, enthusiastically told Maya: “Isn't it so cool?" Maya quietly nodded with her mouth still open in awe. "Wanna count the arms with me?" A small crowd had built up, of about 7 or 8 children and half a dozen parents and grandparents onlooking. Kelsey slowly counted out five arms, with the help of parents trying to help get their kid to not be shy. Although silent, Maya eyes intensely watched as Kelsey's finger slowly went from arm to arm as she counted.
"Five arms! How many arms do you have?" Kelsey asked.
"Two!", the other children blurted out knowledgeably.
"Well, do you think sea stars can see?” Maya’s eyes widened and she looked up at her mom as if to say, “What kind of question is that?”
“Well, they can,” Kelsey continued. “On the tips of all five of their arms, they have tiny light-sensitive spots. Look!” Kelsey held up the sea star so Maya could see it, eye to eye. Kelsey explained that the sea star couldn’t see pictures like you and I can, but can instead see light, shadows and shapes to help them find shelter and food.
Maya looked closely, trying to make sense of what she was hearing, trying to make eye contact with this creature. Her jaw still slack, studying, she looked up at her mom and smiled. She tugged on her mom’s jacket, bouncing on her toes with silent excitement.
“Wanna feel it?” Kelsey offered. Without hesitation, Maya reached out to touch. "Your pinkie is best, can you show me your pinkie?" Kelsey asked.
Maya studied her hand, concentrating on clasping all her fingers while keeping the pinkie straight. It took a second. She proudly showed just her pinkie up, Kelsey and Maya gently touched the back of the sea star together. "What does it feel like?" Kelsey asked.
A slight delay caused by lack of appropriate vocabulary to effectively describe the unique epidermis of the pink sea star, Maya looked up and said "whoa".
I stand corrected. She was able to find the perfect vocabulary after all.
After an hour of closely inspecting each exhibit with her sister, Maya's mother had to promise they would be back tomorrow to get them to go along home with her.
The next day, when Maya and her family returned, Maya's mother told us that Maya didn't get any sleep that night. That Maya was too excited. She told her mom that she too was going to be a marine biologist like Kelsey when she got older.
Maya had brought a friend along with her today. She pulled her by the arm towards the touch tanks. Kelsey overheard Maya say, “See, they have eyes on the tips of every arm.” Her friends jaw was on the floor.