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Churaumi Aquarium: Okinawa's riveting sea show
The aquarium's massive tank is one of the few places in the world you can see a whale shark without getting into the water
Scores of silhouettes stand in the blue glow of the Kuroshio Sea Tank, only 60 centimeters of acrylic separating them from a mini-ocean filled with creatures great and small.
Smartphones gleam like beacons in the dark, cavernous room, on standby to capture photos once the show starts.
A woman appears on a screen that hangs next to the tank.
“Mina-san, hi, hi,” she says in Japanese, welcoming everyone. She’s behind the scenes, perched above the water and gearing up for feeding time.
Three whale sharks glide back and forth in the 7,500-cubic-meter tank as manta rays, nurse sharks and all manner of fish -- giant grouper, yellowfin tuna, yellow and blueback fusilier -- weave around them. The announcer provides more commentary (in Japanese) before staff start dumping plankton and shrimp into the tank by the bucketful.
The whale sharks open their mammoth mouths and keep on swimming.
“It's eating, look it's eating,” I hear one man say to the little girl who’s sitting on his shoulders. “That's a big fish.”
Whale sharks are, in fact, the biggest fish in the world. But they’re filter feeders, so watching them chow down is about as exciting as watching a plant suck in carbon dioxide. Still, seeing them do anything in this kind of setting is considered a rare treat.
The experts at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium say captive reproduction “has been fraught with difficulties” and that they've managed to house multiple whale sharks in a tank.
The oldest, which is about 17, came to the aquarium years ago after fishermen caught it in a net. It now measures 8.5 meters long and weighs 5.5 tons.
“I’ve been to quite a few aquariums in different cities, but never seen a whale shark in an aquarium,” says Tracy Ruggiero, a tourist from Hawaii. “It’s beautiful.”
The people who run the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium agree with Ruggiero. They tacked on the word for beautiful in the Okinawan dialect (chura) to the facility’s name when it reopened in November 2002 after extensive renovations.
The aquarium, which began operating in 1975, is the main attraction at Ocean Expo Park, a sprawling coastal complex in the town of Motobu (30 minutes by car from Nago, two hours from Naha). The national government park also includes beaches, tropical and subtropical arboretums, a sea observatory and a native Okinawan village.
“It takes a day to walk around,” says my guide, Keiko Gibo.
We start off at the Dolphin Lagoon, joining hundreds of people who are here to check out the performance. Staff in wetsuits use arm gestures and whistles to get the mammals to flip and dive, wave their tails and bob their heads, eliciting oohs, aahs and applause from the audience.
The dolphins jump through hula hoops and over poles, reaching heights of 5.5 meters, the ocean backdrop so close you’d think a simple twist in the air could propel them back into the sea and to freedom.
Diversity of the sea
Dolphin shows aren’t for everyone, and sea enthusiasts may find themselves spending most of their time inside the aquarium, which welcomes nearly 3 million people a year.
Along with the Kuroshio Sea Tank, named after the warm ocean current that caresses the Okinawa islands, visitors can also see the world’s first large-scale exhibit of coral reproduction, made up of more than 800 different coral colonies.
It’s home to 200 types of tropical fish with colors that span the spectrum: humphead parrotfish, blue angelfish, five-lined snapper, orange stripe surgeonfish, clown anemonefish.
“Kirei, kirei,” cries one woman, repeating the Japanese word for pretty as she snaps photos with her smartphone. The fish stare back silently.
The creatures in the aquarium’s deep sea exhibit aren’t what many would consider pretty, but they’re interesting. Seventy rare species, such as blacksail snake mackerels, ruby snappers, lantern fish and sea spiders live in this dimly lit area. Most have been collected from depths of 200 meters off the shores of Okinawa.
At the shallow Touch Pool, unwitting volunteers such as starfish, cushion stars and sea cucumbers are picked up and put down by hundreds of people a day. A visit to the aquarium makes for a long day, perhaps for them most of all.
Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium; 424 Ishikawa, Motobu-cho, Kunigami-gun, Okinawa Prefecture; +81-980-48-3748; Adults: ¥1800 (US$20), high school students: ¥1200 (US$13.50), elementary/junior high school students: ¥600 (US$6.75), children younger than 6 years old: free; opening hours: (normal) 8:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m.; (summer) 8:30 a.m.-8 p.m., http://oki-churaumi.jp
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