I recently posted some facts about sea turtles and I want to dive a little deeper into my love for marine life. Three or so years ago, I was nearing the end of earning my associate’s degree in business administration. At this point, I had taken accounting, business law, statistics, communications (public speaking), and several other business related classes. I honestly had no idea where I was going with it, but it seemed like the most logical choice at that point. At the time, I went straight into college after graduating high school and I just wanted to finish SOMETHING so I could be done with school. I wanted some kind of foundation so I wouldn’t be working a fast food job forever, because that grew old rather quickly for me. At that point, I was convinced school was not for me and that I was not progressing past my associate’s degree.
During my last quarter before graduation, I decided to take a marine biology class. I needed a lab science in order to complete my degree and this class required a trip to San Salvador in the Bahamas as part of the lab and a study abroad opportunity. The year before, my first year in college, I had looked into this trip, but never pursued the idea because it scared me a little and I just decided not to look into it. I regretted it almost immediately and for that whole year. When my last quarter came around and I was told this class and that trip was one of my options towards completing my degree, I didn’t give it a second thought. I was going to learn from my mistakes and face my fears. I’m so happy I did.
Including me, there were five people in my class, yes, FIVE! The school was incredibly small, but I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. And I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of this class. We had a few weeks of classes before our trip, and, from the very first day, I was so happy that I decided on taking that class. I learned so much about the different species in the ocean and the importance the ocean plays in our every day lives, whether we realize it or not. The ocean holds so much life and so much that we take for granted. I began talking about school and this class to literally everyone. I’m pretty sure I drove my boyfriend (now fiance, Donald) crazy with how many “fun facts” I told him on a daily basis. I never thought I would enjoy learning as much I was then.
One day, when I was sharing more of my newfound knowledge with Donald, he asked me a seemingly innocent, legitimate question. He said, “You seem to love this class and learning about marine life and how it all works, so, why are you majoring in business when you hate all of your business classes?” I say seemingly innocent because I believe, to this day, his question completely flipped everything I had “planned” for my life upside down. He was completely right. Why was I taking classes I absolutely hated and taking the “easy” route, in my case? If I’m being totally honest, I never thought I would do well in science classes because I never thought of myself as smart enough. I was settling for an easier route because I never gave myself enough, or really ANY, credit. I have always loved animals and always thought about working and studying their lives and habitats, but I never felt smart enough. From day one, Donald has never failed to believe in me and encourage me. He has been there when I pushed past chemistry classes I cried my way through and wanting to give up.
Anyway, back to 2014… After his question, I became even more excited about going to class than ever before. I slowly was getting everything together for my trip and stuck strictly to the packing list provided by my professor. I showed up for every class and tried my hardest to study, despite working at least five days a week at Chick-fil-a at the time. As time grew nearer to our departure for San Salvador, everyone in class (all 5 of us, haha) became so excited. We started “learning” a little less and started more discussion on what would be expected of us while on our trip. Our snorkeling among the reefs would be our “labs” and we’d have class time in the evening, most days. We had plenty of fun stuff planned, but we were thoroughly reminded that his was a school trip and we were to conduct ourselves as such. Finally, the day arrived!
The day we left for Nassau, our first stop, we met at the school and drove the almost three hours to the airport to catch our flights. This was my first time flying, ever, so I was nervous, but glad to have people guiding me through the craziness that is Atlanta’s airport! After a couple of hours in the air, we made it to Nassau where we would be staying overnight until our flight to San Salvador the next morning. We explored Nassau a little, found a small, cute restaurant to eat at, and made our way back to our rooms where my roommate and I froze because the temperature was in celsius without us realizing it! It could have been worse and we could have not had an air conditioner, so I count it as just a funny story.
Bright and early the next morning, we packed our bags back into another taxi and began our terrifyingly fast ride back to the Nassau airport. This time, instead of a giant Delta jet, we piled onto a much smaller airplane with propellers that I was slightly skeptical about, but took my window seat next to the propeller and kept my mouth shut. Honestly, I worked myself up over nothing (surprise, surprise). We were in the air for less than an hour when it was announced that we would be landing on the island of San Salvador where the Gerace Research Center is located. The Gerace Research Center is a part of the University of the Bahamas and is the center for marine science along with studies like archaeology, biology, and geology. The Gerace Research Center quickly became our home for the next ten days. We were given a tour of the center, settled into our rooms, had a little dinner, and then quickly made our way to one of the higher points on the island to watch the sunset.
Over the next ten days, we had a packed schedule. Obviously, a majority of our time would be spent in the water. However, we did get the chance to explore other parts of the island. One day we went up to the old lighthouse and then hiked our way down to the bat cave where we descended a very questionable looking ladder into complete darkness. We had to be careful where we stepped, but it was probably one of the coolest places I have ever seen. Being in a real cave, not set up for tourism like places like Ruby Falls and Rock City, was so cool to me… but that might just be me! We always got to walk around the ruins of an old castle that one of the first settlers on the island had built. Due to hurricanes and time, much of it was destroyed, but the stone structure still allowed, with a little imagination, you to picture the size of “castle” that once stood where the ruins now occupy. Fun fact: It is believed that, when Christopher Columbus first sailed this way in 1492, that San Salvador is where he initially landed. They have a statue at one of the bays where they believed he first set foot at. Fortunately, we were to check that out and take plenty of pictures there.
All of these side adventures were fun, of course, but the snorkeling and seeing the marine life firsthand is what I remember the most. Our first time trying on our gear was, I imagine, pretty comical if you were watching instead of being in our shoes (flippers)! After watching us all almost fall on our faces trying to walk forward, our professor told us we had to enter the water walking backwards while we had flippers on, go figure. We didn’t see very much the first time in the water as we were across the street from the research center near a dock and were told to steer clear of the dock due to invasive, and venomous, lionfish in the area. We spent quite some time in the water acclimating to swimming with flippers and breathing through a snorkel, which was all more difficult than it initially appeared to be.
The days to follow were filled with successful snorkeling. We saw so many unique creatures like lobsters, grouper, thimble jellyfish (look them up, they’re tiny and adorable), puffer fish, stingrays, and even a nurse shark. We spent some time on one of the cays off the island which was home to an extremely rare subspecies of iguana (Bahamian Rock Iguana). All species of rock iguanas are considered endangered, but some, like the Bahamian Rock Iguanas, are classified as critically endangered due to the fact that their numbers in the wild are very low, possibly even below 700. It took some maneuvering to get onto the cay the iguanas called home, but once we did, a bunch of the iguanas ran out to greet us. Probably one of the best experiences I have ever encountered, however, this means that “bad” people, like smugglers who smuggle rare and endangered exotic species to sell them, have an easier job since they don’t have to search for them and capture them. And yes, that did happen. Luckily, most of the iguanas were recovered and returned. There were other activities we had planned, but never got around to. We were supposed to go night snorkeling (I was terrified about this and kinda glad we didn’t), we were supposed to swim to the “wall” where the bottom of the ocean goes from 40-60 feet to several hundred feet deep (didn’t want to do this either), and we were also supposed to snorkel in the mangroves. I was bummed about that last one, but one of the girls in my class cut her foot really badly and we were unable to do that snorkel trip.
I could sit here and write all day about all of the different adventures we were able to experience during this trip, but I’m already getting a little long-winded, as usual. At the end of the trip, I was ready to get home and see my family, but I was sad leaving such a peaceful place. I had spent the past ten days submerged in everything about marine life and island life. I had learned so much about the marine species around San Salvador and had taken away much more than I arrived with. I felt a spark inside of me, an excitement about learning that I had never had before. I had a confidence about science that I had never experienced. I felt drawn to studying and helping the wildlife I had encountered.
Donald was right. I never had the passion or drive for business that I had for biology or ecology after experiencing this class. I’d like to say that I immediately changed my direction and, subsequently, my life, but I’d be lying. The next year and a half I spent working at a bank after graduation. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed my time there due to some amazing coworkers and I learned so much, but I still felt that pull towards working with animals that I felt while taking that class. After being at the bank for a year, I decided to do what I never thought I’d do: I went back to school. After my first semester, I made the decision to leave the bank due to conflicting schedules with classes and work. It was a tough decision, but I had all of the support I could have wanted and I knew it was the right one. After two semesters at this university, and a whole lot of struggling with no help from my professors (except one), I went back to the school where I received my associates degree to finish out chemistry II, which I finished last December.
So much has changed in the past eight months or so. I got engaged at the end of last year, I’ve been planning a wedding, I’ve been working, and I’ve been mentally preparing myself to move away from the only state and city I’ve ever called home. I have since been taking another break from school and have been struggling with being “older” (I’m 23 and obviously a drama queen) and having still not finished school. I have beat myself up over it and have wondered multiple times what the heck I’m doing and why I didn’t stick the the “easy” route. I have questioned and cried over my decision and I’ve prayed about it more than I could tell, but probably still not enough. I have this want to control my life and this need to stick to the plan I made for my life and all the while I’m laughing to myself because I know having control over my life is obviously some illusion I’ve made up because I changed my mind.
I thought I knew what I wanted and needed for my life. I had everything neatly organized and planned out in my head; I had a good five-year plan, but I changed my mind. I changed my mind and I’m coming to term with the fact that that IS OKAY! It’s okay that I changed my mind and it’s okay that I didn’t know what I really wanted at 18. I have tried and experienced so many things since then. I’ve been to the other side of the world. I have tried things that I didn’t think I’d liked, but ended up loving. I’ve also tried things I wanted so badly to do, only to find out that it really wasn’t my thing. But it’s still okay and I’m still learning.
Honestly, we only get this one life and many people would have us believe that to have the perfect life, sticking to your perfectly made-up plans and your five and ten year goals is a must for your happiness and that’s not always the case. Don’t get me wrong, having goals and plans is great, but you risk putting on these sort of goal blinders on and missing out on something that could completely change your life that maybe isn’t part of the plan.. in an amazing way. As Dolly Parton once said, “Don’t get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.” I could have stuck to the business route and went on to get a job that I knew I would be settling for because it wouldn’t have been what I wanted to do… because I had no idea what I wanted to do! That would have been easy. I don’t regret not taking the easy route. It’s been five years since I started college and I’m still not done, but I’m not giving up because it’s taking me a little longer than most. I’m going to be sure of what I want by taking this “in-between” time to set some new goals for myself. I’m going to take this time to enjoy this transition that is so quickly approaching. I’m going to take this time to ultimately make sure I know that it’s okay that I changed my mind.