Thoughts on Churaumi

pairChristmas is coming up, and the flow of emails, meetings and other requests has slowed down, so I finally have a few moments to jot down some thoughts about my recent trip to Okinawa, specifically regarding my visit to the Churaumi Aquarium.

First and right up front, I enjoyed the aquarium. I was pretty sure I would, based upon what I'd heard from friends who've been there, but at the same time, I wasn't entirely certain.

Some people object to captive environments for all animals; others more to keeping large animals like whale sharks in manmade facilities. I'm not entirely for the concept, but I can't completely oppose the practice either. It's not a black-and-white issue for me, as I see arguments for and against.

From my point of view, in a perfect world, I'd rather that all animals be allowed to roam free in their natural habitats. It's much more fulfilling, for instance, to encounter a whale shark in the open ocean than it is to stare at one in a big tank. But of course, we don't live in a perfect world.

groupAlso, having worked previously with an aquarium in Singapore, I know that there can be significant problems with captive facilities, including high mortality rates and mistreatment of animals, often due more to ignorance than bad intent.

On the other hand, the standard of care for animals in captivity can be very high. It really depends upon the facility and people involved. Also, venues like public aquaria give visitors the chance to experience the beauty and wonders of opportunity many people probably wouldn't otherwise have.

I visited many aquaria when I was a kid, and there's no doubt that what I saw and learned during those visits contributed to my obsession with the oceans and my desire to do what I'm doing now. Moreover, in many captive facilities, there's research conducted and hence valuable knowledge gained, some of which may be helpful in ensuring the health of wild animal populations.

In the specific case of Churaumi, I liked what I saw.

First, in typical Japanese fashion, everything was highly organised. This in itself doesn't necessarily mean everything's ok, but if you're looking after the well-being of living creatures, being organised is a prerequisite as far as I'm concerned.

mantaIt's not the ticket-taking process and such that I'm referring to, but the cleaning/ maintenance of the tanks, the layout of the facilities behind the scenes (I went "backstage" to take a look), and the level of knowledge demonstrated in the set-up and presentation of the exhibits, as well as the staff's ability to answer questions. In short, they had it together (By contrast, I've been to other facilities where it was painfully obvious that the relevant people didn't have a clue.).

Next is the health of the animals. If animals are unhappy or not comfortable, it generally shows. I'm not naive enough to believe that there are no problems at the aquarium, but I watched the animals in the main Kuroshio Tank exhibit for an entire day. They behaved normally (as far as I can tell from having observed the same animals in the wild), and I didn't notice any obvious signs of stress. The mantas, for example, were lining up and swimming in a row, males following a female...perhaps a precursor to mating. To date, there have been two baby mantas born in this aquarium, of which one has survived (the first was killed by its father, for unknown reasons).

Finally, there's the effect that the exhibits have on visitors. There were swarms of school kids at the aquarium in the morning, and without exception, they were enthralled. There were plenty of adults too, most of whom stared and gawked in wonder. Seeing the wide-eyed reactions and hearing the excited chatter of visitors reminded me of how fortunate I am to have been in the water with most of the animals there.

What clinched it for me though, was seeing a woman confined to a wheelchair staring up at the mantas, whale sharks, tuna, mahi mahi, eagle rays and all the other fish. At the risk of sounding was a heart-warming sight. There's probably no other way that she could have found herself literally just a few metres away from these amazing animals.


Of course, there were some reminders of the downsides of captivity. A few fish had what appeared to be injuries, perhaps from colliding with parts of the enclosure, or maybe in disputes with other animals. There were separate enclosures for manatees, sea turtles and big sharks (a tiger, a couple of bulls, and sandbars). These enclosures were far too small. There's also a cetacean show, something I'm personally less keen on, primarily because I've interacted with dolphins and whales in the wild, and I know them to be intelligent, social animals that may be as cognizant of their circumstances as we are.

On the whole, however, I have to give the aquarium a thumbs up. Nothing in life is perfect, and I think the positive effect the aquarium has outweighs the negative aspects.

behind the scenesIf you happen to visit Churaumi, here are a few practical pointers that'll help you get the most out of the exhibit.

1. Get your tickets at the Kyoda rest area.
2. Plan on taking photos of the main Kuroshio Tank in the afternoon. The sun in the morning creates distracting reflections on the acrylic. Spend the morning viewing the other exhibits.
3. Sign up for the backstage tours, where you get a chance to see the innards of the aquarium, including a top-down perspective of the main tanks. Spaces and times are limited, so do this early.
4. Everything is in Japanese. If you don't speak Japanese, take a friend who does. You'll understand and appreciate much more this way.
5. There are two feeding times, at 15:00 and 17:00, when they feed the whale sharks, something that's worth seeing. The 15:00 time was jam-packed when I visited, even though it was a weekday during the off season. The 17:00 time wasn't. Tour buses and groups tend to leave after the 15:00 feeding.


One final, tangential observation: I'm not sure what the exact percentage was, but a significant proportion of people (probably the majority) were taking pictures not with cameras, but with their camera phones. I realised several years ago that this would happen, but it was another thing altogether to see it. Camera manufacturers take note: the market for stand-alone compact digital cameras will dwindle...much sooner than you think.