Okinawa Prefecture can be found at the southernmost end of Japan. Not many Australians are familiar with Okinawa, a beautiful island boasting tropical weather year-round. It’s a hidden gem that anyone travelling to Japan should make sure to visit.
Churaumi Aquarium in one of the top attractions here and is the second largest aquarium in the world. Churaumi means ‘beautiful sea’ (‘Chura’ means ‘beautiful’ in Okinawan dialect, and ‘umi’ is ‘ocean’ in Japanese), a fitting name for this amazing aquarium. Part of the Ocean Expo Park, the aquarium was redesigned and reopened in 2002 and receives millions of visitors every year.
The highlight of the aquarium is the Kuroshio Sea Tank, which lets visitors view what life is like deep under water around Okinawa. The 7,500-cubic-metre tank (approximately 10m deep, 35m wide and 27m long) holds as much water as three Olympic-sized swimming pools. That’s a lot of water. It’s one of the few tanks in the world large enough to hold a whale shark – except at this aquarium there are three huge whale sharks in the one tank.
Yes, the Kuroshio Sea Tank’s huge capacity is capable of housing three massive whale sharks, as well as manta rays (including one manta ray with the world record for longevity in captivity and a few manta rays that have been born in the aquarium), nursery sharks and many fish that can be found in the waters around Okinawa. A total of 80 species (around 16,000 specimens) live in the tank. The underwater creatures found in this tank are local fish only – the Kuroshio Sea Tank houses only fish that live in the enormous, warm current of Kuroshio (Black Current) that nurtures marine life in the Okinawan seas. Life under water around Okinawa has been recreated carefully here at the Kuroshio Sea Tank, down to the amount of light and the clarity of water.
The tank is astounding – the 60cm-thick acrylic panel window that lets visitors gaze at the incredible fish measures 8.2m in height and 22.5m in width. This huge window is considered to be the world’s largest, and the thickness of the acrylic is necessary to stop the tank from collapsing under the pressure of all that water. The panel is made from seven acrylic-resin sheets, held together by a special flexible glue.
The three 8.5m whale sharks swim serenely around the tank, much to the visitors’ delight. The sight of these giant fish gliding around the tank is an amazing sight for anyone. Whale sharks can grow much bigger than 8.5m – the largest confirmed whale shark grew to over 12.5m in length and weighed more than 21.5 tonnes. They are known to grow even beyond that. They are giant, but docile creatures and slow moving in the water.
Whale shark feeding times are big attractions for visitors. As the aquarium staff pours buckets of krill into the tank, the three whale sharks move into vertical positions. Being filter feeders, their huge, wide mouths vacuum in the food (and huge amounts of water) – a pretty amazing sight. Each needs a quarter of a tonne of food every week.
Experts at the aquarium are working on breeding whale sharks, which has not been successfully done before. Churaumi Aquarium was the first to succeed in keeping multiple manta rays, leading to successful reproduction in the tank.
There are many other attractions at the aquarium; you could easily spend a full day here. One attraction you don’t want to miss is the Coral Sea display. Here, visitors can view the world’s first large-scale exhibit of coral reproduction. The Coral Sea display has been carefully crafted to mimic the natural environment for corals. It is an open top display, meaning the tank receives direct sunlight. This is so the corals can grow in the aquarium just as they would naturally. The water in the tank is pumped from the sea and is continually replaced to create the most natural environment. The aquarium has more than 800 different coral colonies on display.
The aquarium’s Deep Sea exhibit is another interesting area. There are rare species of fish from the deep, deep sea displayed, and many come from depths of 200m off the shores of Okinawa. In order to ensure the health of these deep water fish, they are placed in special decompression chambers to gradually acclimate them to the shallower depths of the exhibits. This has enabled the aquarium to collect fish they were not able to before.
Next time you’re in Japan, fly down to Okinawa for a relaxing stay on this beautiful island. Churaumi Aquarium is not just for kids – it is an amazing aquarium enjoyed by all.
For more information, visit www.oki-churaumi.jp (and click on the English tab at the top).
About the Author – Shiori Cochrane
Shiori has been involved in the book and magazine publication and TV production industries for almost 15 years. Her articles are focused on travel, food and sustainability. When she is not writing or editing, she spends her time travelling with the Explore TV team, producing the popular travel series Explore TV on Nine. She lives in the beautiful hills of Western Australia with her husband and three boys.