"Git," she hissed. "Oh, no. Get outta here. Shoo. Oh ICK."
We'd been in Australia a couple of weeks and had enough experience with the wildlife to expect something ferocious in there with her. We stumbled over each other to get in and save her, imagining the worst.
A poisonous snake? Tasmanian devil? Rabid dingo? Hungry croc?
The truth, of course, was tamer than that.
A conga-line of tiny black ants had filed under the kitchen window, across the breakfast nook, past the entryway, up the stairs, down the hall and into the bedroom. And now they were making brunch of the three-week stash of chocolates, gummy critters and protein bars our granddaughter had lugged all the way from Seattle.
There were other reasons for coming, of course. The trip had had its beginnings a couple of years earlier. We grandparents were having lunch in a Reno hamburger joint and got to talking about what we might do for our six grandkids to help them discover the world and their place in it. We decided to take each one on a trip to any foreign country they choose when they become teens. The rules are few: No theme parks, no war-torn regions, no place so expensive we couldn't afford to take the next "grandkid trip."
Ashley Wallace, a 16-year-old from Whidbey Island, was the oldest grandchild and our first world traveler. She decided on Australia almost instantly. She'd always been enamored of animals (her favorite game as a tot was dressing up the family dog in costume-jewelry necklaces and clip-on earrings). What better place to see animals than Australia with its gentle kangaroos and koalas and ferocious Tasmanian devils and dingoes, the wild dogs of the bush. But her favorite creature had always been the dolphin, and she wanted to see Australia's bottlenoses up close. We talked about visiting one of those resorts where they let guests swim in a pool with captured dolphins. But that didn't appeal to any of us. To Ashley it seemed a cruel and exploitive thing to do to a magnificent, intelligent creature. To us it seemed artificial.
So we planned our trip around three days at Tangalooma, a wild-dolphin research center and resort on Moreton Island off Australia's east coast near Brisbane. About 400 wild bottlenose dolphins live in Moreton Bay. Nearly every day at dusk, half a dozen or more of them swim up to the jetty to greet researchers and resort guests waiting knee-deep in the cold surf with bags full of biddies silvery fish about the size of a herring to feed them. While they're in the neighborhood, the researchers take note of their habits, health and size.
It was an experience we all remember vividly. A stiff breeze was blowing as we walked across the beach to the shallows where the dolphins know to come. Floodlights on the pier bounced off their glistening backs as they darted through the darkening water toward the beach.
Ashley was trembling with an even mixture of cold and anticipation as we dipped our hands in a bucket containing a disinfectant solution to reduce the risk of transmitting human illnesses to the dolphins.
As we waded into the water clutching biddy fish in each hand, two dark forms slipped up beside us. One of the researchers in the water with us identified them. Echo is an orphan with a scar on his dorsal fin from an unfortunate experience with a shark. Nari is playful and sometimes lingers in the feeding area after the pod leaves to chase down a few extra fish. Ashley reached down to tempt Echo with a limp biddy fish. He squeaked his thanks, swam a tight little circle around us and nosed up to her leg for another. And another. Until we had no more biddy fish to give them.
Ashley was entranced.
"I watched in awe as their glistening bodies leaped through the water and as their warm, gentle smiles melted my heart like butter," she wrote, still starry-eyed, in the college-entry essay she sent out the following school year.
"Just stepping into the water, waiting to feed the wild dolphins, showed me that I am yet unfinished, on my journey to find who I am."
Ashley the animal lover didn't stop with the dolphins at Tangalooma. On the beach, she tossed dozens of stranded starfish back into the surf, gleefully telling each one, "I'm saving your life and you should thank me."
She cuddled koalas and nuzzled friendly kangaroos at Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary in Brisbane. She did a water ballet with the rainbow-colored fish that make their home on the Great Barrier Reef. In Sydney, she petted a wombat and hissed back at the Tasmanian devils at Taronga Zoo. We took breaks from the animals to visit Sydney's Olympic Park, the site of the 2000 Olympics, stroll the quay beside the city's famous Opera House and climb the Harbour Bridge for a heart-pounding view of the city.
Ashley's a college sophomore now. "I really liked Sydney," she says with a confidence gained from age and (we like to think) travel. "It was big and far away, and it was neat being in a foreign place. I really liked just being there. But the dolphins were still the best."
Our five other grandchildren are beginning to decide where they want to go when it's their turn to see the world with us. One said at first he'd take us to the Bermuda Triangle, but that turned out to be just a joke he's talking about New Zealand now. Ashley's brother, Max, who's the next to go, has his heart set on China. We'll go next summer unless SARS continues to be a threat.
While we like to think we're doing this for the grandkids, there are some important things in it for us, too. We'll have each one to ourselves for a little while at a time when they're getting ready to take that leap out of childhood. And there's nothing so refreshing as seeing the world and its people through the curious and awestruck eyes of a teenager.
Ashley will always take with her memories of kangaroos, ants in her candy and heart-melting dolphin smiles. But we'll take a slightly different Australian memory through our lives. It's of the smile that lit her face that dark and magic evening with the dolphins in Moreton Bay.
Sally Macdonald is a former Seattle Times reporter; John Macdonald is a former Times travel editor.
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