One perk of growing up with a children’s author for a dad was getting first dibs when the latest book was delivered to the Wahn family home in Del Mar’s beach colony.
But it was with an added spring in his step that a now-13-year-old Paolo greeted the crate of books that arrived at the end of August for the fifth installment in Udo Wahn’s series about a pair of ocean-loving surfers. There on the cover, just below the title, is Paolo’s name — given top billing, no less, in the byline shared with his dad.
“He always used to give me the first book out of the first box that he opened,” Paolo recalled recently. “That helped inspire me to write a book someday. When I saw this book, it felt good to know that it was completed.”
In “Cabo and Coral Meet a Kelp Hugger,” their first collaboration, the father-and-son duo set out to help readers understand some of the impacts of climate change. While Paolo served as the inspiration when the series launched more than a decade ago, the elder Wahn had not considered writing a book with his son. Their collaboration started to take shape last summer after they watched An Inconvenient Truth, the seminal film from Al Gore that sparked a new era of climate consciousness. And after the Surfrider Foundation’s San Diego chapter sent Udo to Gore’s Climate Reality Project last year, the book had its scientific underpinnings.
Writing the book was a deeply personal mission for Paolo, who understood sparingly little about climate change until he started talking about it with his father.
“A lot of kids don’t really know what it is. I didn’t even really learn about it until like two years ago,” said Paolo, an 8th grade student at Earl Warren Middle School. “Something needs to be done because, otherwise, other children will probably not have the same advantages some people have had.”
One year ago this month, the duo headed up to Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, coloring pencils in tow, to sketch out how their story would unfold. Their greatest obstacle in telling it: how to turn complex scientific principles into a digestible — and personally relatable — narrative.
Enter Kelpy the octopus.
After being injured in a fisherman’s net and taken to an aquarium to recover, Kelpy spends several years in lonesome captivity before escaping his tank one night and shimmying out to the ocean through a storm drain.
But when the sensitive cephalopod returns to his beloved reef, his once-teeming home has turned barren and desolate. Seeing the devastation, Cabo tells Coral his somber diagnosis: in the years Kelpy had been in the aquarium, so much carbon dioxide had built up in the atmosphere that the planet grew warmer. The warmer air raised the ocean temperatures and, at the same time, that excess of carbon dioxide dissolved into the ocean, skewing its delicate balance of acidity. That heat and acidity had spelled a two-fold disaster for Kelpy’s coral reef — and reefs around the world — which rely on throngs of algae to thrive. Cabo goes on to describe similar fates that have befallen polar bears and Inuit villages in the Arctic, and watering holes in Africa.
But as with each of the five Cabo and Coral books, the ocean-loving surfers find reason to be hopeful for the future — this time as they enjoy a day on the waves with Kelpy, a bright spot from the depressing picture.
Udo Wahn hopes it’s a message that will spread to children at an early age — much younger than Paolo was — as well as to their parents.
“With a book like this, children worldwide can learn about climate change at a much earlier age in a fun, kid-friendly way, and yet with a lot of good information that I think many parents don’t understand,” he said. “You could probably ask 100 adults ‘What is coral bleaching?’ and they’re going to give you a funny look. Same with ocean acidification; 90-some percent are not going to have a clue. So hopefully we’ve made it a little easier to understand, because those are things that are going to impact us in a major way.”
Learn more at caboandcoral.com.