And now for the highlight of our first day (and maybe the whole Okinawa trip) - Churaumi Aquarium, renowed for having the world's second largest aquarium viewing tank (it was the largest until Dubai took the honour in 2008). Churaumi is also one of the few to have whale sharks in captivity, and is trying to breed them.
"Chura 美ら" means "beautiful" in native Okinawan, and "umi 海" is Japanese for "sea".
This "beautiful sea" aquarium is part of the Ocean Expo Park, which is a pretty big place with lots of other non-marine exhibits. In fact, there's a Tropical Dream Center that has over 2,000 orchids, including species not seen in Singapore!
Right at the entrance of Ocean Expo Park, you'll be greeted by a colourful explosion of flowers.
Hard not to be cheered by the sight.
This says "Menso-re ("Welcome!" in the Okinawan dialect) to Ocean Expo Park". The park's been around since 1975, but the aquarium was built in 2002.
Walk the grand sloping staircase down and enjoy the sense of space.
There are travelators on each side in both directions (something we appreciated after traipsing around a lot).
It's a slight walk to the aquarium, but it's no sweat at all for the many schoolkids who come here.
This was also the day that I discovered that in colder weather my DSLR camera gobbles up battery life like crazy. While it lasted four days in sunny Telunas (Indonesia) on a single charge, here in Okinawa, it couldn't take half a day and chose to die soon after we entered the aquarium. So I can't believe it, but I have to settle for iPhone 3Gs photos to show you the epic tank.
Anyway, I thought it would be better if I showed you videos than stills. That's the real appeal of an aquarium, watching fish alive and moving. Sorry the quality isn't better on my iPhone (gah, need 4S, but everyone telling me to wait for iPhone 5!)
Yes, the grand Kuroshio tank with the fish gliding by like ethereal beings - that's 7,500 cubic metres of water there with an acrylic glass panel measuring 8.2m by 22.5m. The viewing panel is 60mm thick! The tank name comes from the Kuroshio current which is what bathes the Okinawan islands and give it life.
More than 16,000 fish live here, including three whale sharks, giant manta rays and lots of tuna. And guess what? The manta rays are breeding here! Four have been born so far! That can only mean happy fish. Animals don't breed unless they feel the environment is safe.
As mentioned earlier, they are gonna try whale shark breeding next. Fingers crossed for baby whale sharks!
We also witnessed a peculiar incident where a deathly pale-looking zebra (or leopard) shark turned belly up, and some other sharks came over to try to help or revive it. Yes, you'll see it around 1:20 after the huge whaleshark glides past.
At first we thought the other sharks were trying to eat it, but they didn't tear it apart. Instead, they seemed to guide it to a safe corner. Visitors were going, "Shin da?" (Is it dead?) and a little boy going, "Oyogi! Oyogi!" (Swim! Swim!).
Some curious sting rays also came to take a look. But the cluster of fellow zebra sharks kept watch over their fallen brother. Amazing.
The tank is indeed breath-taking. I am reminded of the Osaka Kaiyoukan, which also has a huge tank (a whopping seven storeys high) with a whale shark in it. That's where I was first wowed by seeing a live whale shark.
Well, after some time, you see the whale sharks circling around for their nth time, you start to have anthropomorphic pity for the creatures. And start wondering if it's too crowded or if it is really cruel to keep them enclosed like that.
But I feel these exhibits still serve a purpose to inspire the younger generation to learn about these animals and to take care of the marine environment.
There's lots more to the aquarium - a full coral exhibit, deep-sea creatures, micro creatures, giant squid (preserved), huge lobsters with stubby lobsters, and even a shark research lab.
Outside the aquarium are areas for dolphin performances, manatees, and sea turtles.
The Churaumi Aquarium is one of the most visited attractions in Okinawa. You could easily spend a whole day at the Ocean Expo Park, with an afternoon in the aquarium. It's great to take your time and not rush through the exhibits, as there are lots of interesting facts and details to take in. I'm glad we had a few hours here.
For opening hours and ticketing details, please see their website. The aquarium is located on the northern part of Okinawa's main island. Here's how to get there.
This media trip to Okinawa was made possible by CTC Travel, Okinawa Visitors and Convention Bureau, and Okinawa Tourist Service). There are no direct flights from Singapore to Okinawa yet, but CTC Travel organises specially chartered flights and tours.