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Gallery: Interview with a mermaid
At Korea's largest aquarium, a group of former national synchronized swimmers perform alongside sharks, stingrays and sea turtles
The US$10 billion Expo 2012 Yeosu Korea wrapped in August, but the best time to visit the expo site may actually be now.
Aqua Planet Yeosu, the Expo's biggest draw during its three-month tenure and Korea's largest aquarium built specially for the water-themed expo, is the only venue still open to visitors at the expo site.
In honor of its re-opening (the 1,640-square-meter aquarium had closed ceremoniously along with the rest of the expo but opened again the following day) Aqua Planet has added a new draw -- an astonishingly beautiful -- and difficult -- mermaid show.
A pretty cool job
“When we first started the show we tried performing while wearing tails, but it was too difficult to achieve a lot of cool movements with them,” says Hye-jung Yoon, 21.
A former Olympic athlete who has been swimming for 15 years (she competed in the 2008 Beijing Olympics), Yoon is the “head mermaid” of the Marine Girls, a trio of former national synchronized swimmers recruited by Aqua Planet to put on shows in the aquarium’s main tank.
Every day, at noon and 5 p.m. Yoon dons silky fins and slips into the water to do a series of graceful flips and dives and dances alongside her fellow mermaids and sea animals that include sea turtles, hammerhead sharks and her favorite -- stingrays.
“When we first got into the tank with them, it was scary," says Yoon.
"The animals were very curious about us and would come over to examine us. We would scream when they came near. But now, they’re so used to it they don’t react when we enter the water. The sharks in particular are super cute. They don’t eat humans, so it’s not dangerous.”
So what's the most difficult part of being a mermaid?
“We have to dive down about nine meters, which is very deep and hurts our ears a lot, especially when we’re not feeling well,” says Yoon.
“But if we don’t dive down that deep, then the audience can’t really see us, so we try to dive as deep as we can every time.”
For mermaid choreography, Yoon says she watches YouTube videos of other mermaid shows from around the world for reference, and then tries out moves of her own with her fellow mermaids in a practice pool behind the tank where they perform.
“It’s a very unusual job,” she laughs. “I hear that a lot.”
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Even apart from the amazing mermaid show, the aquarium is a must-see in itself.
Each viewing experience in the US$78.5 million aquarium is unusual and more multi-dimensional than most, as viewers can see the marine life on multiple floors and follow the particularly active ones through glass tunnels from room to room.
Especially impressive are the jellyfish panels -- huge panes spotted with glowing brightly colored jellyfish, the beluga whale tank (there are three in residence) and a perpetually rotating giant school of sardines.
The aquarium also aims to be eco-friendly, by powering a number of tanks via solar panels installed on the roof of the aquarium.
“I’ve taken about seven or eight different groups who came to Korea from all over the world to see the aquarium,” says Yeosu resident Lee Min-joong, 51. “Every time they say it’s the coolest aquarium they have ever seen. They become awestruck little kids.”
“Personally, I am so glad that the Expo is over so that I can visit whenever I want, without those ridiculous lines,” he says.
Aqua Planet, Sujeong-dong, Yeosu, South Jeolla Province, Korea; +82 61 660 1111; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. daily; admission is ₩20,500 (US$19) for adults, ₩18,500 for teenagers and ₩16,500 for children; www.aquaplanet.co.kr
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