I sawa nudibranch! OMG. They are so cute. They're ... pink! And they have huge eyes, that you can actually see! And eyelashes!"
The three 9-year-olds, frozen to the colour of blueberries because of the late start to summer, went fizzing off in the direction of their friends.
The sound of semi-automatic chatter punctuated by shrieks of delight seemed to herald some large-scale emergency. Nine-year-old girls live their lives like the lead actress in a day-time Mexican soap opera. They are the good and evil twin, and it's all about the hair.
When it's bad, everyone knows. But the great thing is that when it's good, EVERYONE knows. The neighbours. The guy at the petrol station. His dog. And today was obviously a spectacular day.
The decibel-shattering chatter was starting to resemble a South American street protest. Wondering if perhaps this class had been taken away for an experiment involving the effects of methamphetamine on minors when combined with espresso and jelly beans, I looked over to the teachers with a mixture of awe and disbelief. They cannot, surely, have had these kids in open water and not have lost their minds.
It must have been like being an air-traffic controller for Scud missiles. They remained calm, good-natured and in control. How did they do it? I suspected gin.
One of the small person's friends, now also the colour of blueberries under her coffee-coloured skin, rocketed past with a grin plastered on her face. "I saw a seahorse! I saw a seahorse! I didn't even know they really existed but I saw one!" Ecstasy - written large on a young girl's face. Unicorns? No. Seahorses? Definitely.
It's funny how we think we're educating our kids. Guiding them as best we can into a better future when really I spend most of my time scrabbling behind trying to keep up.
Thanks to the small person, I know now that a nudibranch is not a tree in a nudist colony. And Whangarei Harbour - thanks mostly to a bunch of school students at Kamo High School and their dedicated teachers over 10 years - offers one of the best snorkelling experiences in New Zealand. It is an example of environmental-education activism and the huge benefits it can have for the community. Or an example of how adults and institutions eventually follow the kids.
I've also now seen how Northland environmentalist Wade Doak's concept of every New Zealand kid having access to the "wet library" of a full, no-take marine reserve is so important to understanding our coastlines, and how they are really supposed to look and work.
A 2009 study showed the increase in fish, invertebrates (that'd be the nudi-whatsits) and plants inside a marine reserve. Biomass increased by an average of 446 per cent. The body size of animals increased almost 30 per cent and the number of species went up by more than 20 per cent. Interesting to note, too, that New Zealand's first marine reserve at Cape Rodney attracts more than 350,000 snorkellers and scientists every year. Surely that must make a significant economic contribution.
This summer, I'm off to experience one of Whangarei's best "assets" at the Reotahi Marine Reserve. I'd like to see a nudibranch or a seahorse, and find out how one morning experiencing marine reserves can make an entire class of girls want to be marine biologists when they grow up.
It might be their generation that sees the goal of 10 per cent of our coast dedicated to marine reserves finally achieved.