Under the Sea (Well, Almost)

Posted by on Dec 3, 2011 in Okinawa, Travel Volunteer Journey | 3 Comments
Under the Sea (Well, Almost)

I tell you I was born on the seashore! I bathed in the waters of the sea! It gave me food and it gave me peace, and its fascinating distances fed my dreams… I have to smile for the salt of the sea is in my blood, and there may be ten thousand roads over the land, but they shall never confuse me, for my heart’s blood will ever return to its beautiful source.”


Like John Fante’s manic alter-ego Arturo Bandini, we love the sea – and not as a metaphor for Catholicism. Literally the sea: we love looking at it, and we love being in it. Before coming to Okinawa, we couldn’t wait to clamber into its watery vastness – I mean, even a cursory glance at the brochures screams: Maldives of the Far East! Which is true, so long as you go to the right bits, specifically some of the smaller islands.

Unfortunately we didn’t have time to do that and we were bracing ourselves for having to leave empty-handed. Until we found out about the Churaumi Aquarium. Inconveniently located almost two hours north from Naha, it is the largest – and surely best – facility in Japan. By far and away, it’s the most spectacular we’ve ever been to as well.

Why? Well because this is much more than just snotty kids banging on glass* screaming at the fish; it’s a world-class display of some of the sealife that can be found in the waters around old Ryukyu. And it’s genuinely educational, too. For me, that’s the most important thing. Yes toddlers can bother starfish and sea cucumbers in shallow pools at the entrance, but after that, the focus is definitely on learning and understanding.

*Actually, with a no-touching-the-glass policy, and the 60cm-thick encasement, I don’t think the occupants have much to worry about.

The aquarium is divided into three sections, taking guests into deeper and deeper water. The first major tank, the coral reef, has some typically surly-looking groupers, toothless nurse sharks and one cheery-looking green turtle. It’s a special place, but people don’t really hang around as long as they should. We forgive them that, though, considering the crown jewel of Churaumi, the 7,500 m³ Kuroshio Sea, home to giant mantas, yellowfin tuna and three very conspicuous whale sharks, the biggest fish in the sea.

Given the ludicrous size of the animals, the tank – which is one of the world’s largest – barely looks big enough, but the several hundred people that fill the galleries to look at the leviathans don’t seem in the least concerned.

For me, the shark lab next to the main event is even more impressive, not least because it goes to such great lengths to educate visitors. Of course, if you’re going to try and win over people to thinking that sharks are generally safe, there are probably easier ways to go about it than housing a set of megalodon jaws, and three very live bull sharks (which are thought to attack more humans than any other species, even the great white). However, there is a huge amount of information on the ultra-scarce megamouth shark too, which has only been caught and charted 54 times, with 12 of those coming in Japanese waters. All in all, it’s a stunning collection, the best I – a shark nerd – has ever seen.

I love sharks, I really do – I love how perfectly designed they are, how well adapted they’ve become. I utterly despise that the finning that goes on in order to provide disgusting soup in Asia. Seriously, if you’re going to kill sharks at least have the decency to eat the whole thing – unless you were a dribbling psychopath, you wouldn’t cut a cow’s legs off and put it back in the field.

Anyway, as much as I love sharks, I don’t believe they are very intelligent. A display in the shark lab shows this much: a large shark’s brain is a little bigger than a chicken’s egg, while a dolphin of approximately the same size has a much more recognisable brain – a wrinkled, dual-hemisphere, fat grapefruit, just like a human’s. While the sharks swim around in a circle, perhaps loosely thinking about breeding, but really just waiting for the next meal to drop in the tank, dolphins (and whales, for that matter) are clearly capable of much more.

Just how much more? Well outside there’s a dolphin-and-whale show to show how smart our aqua-cousins really are. The half-hour long free performance delights everyone – the bottlenose dolphins, and especially the false killer whales have everyone squealing with glee as they jump out of the water, pull faces and even beach themselves on the poolside.

Each time they do something right they get fish, which might make them look like little more than acrobatic versions of the sharks, but I like to think that it’s the dolphins and whales that are laughing at our stupid, gurning faces while they leap around, getting paid to have a good time. That’s the dream for any living thing, right?

Anyway, for us lovers of all sealife, the downsides of keeping these smart, beautiful creatures were probably outweighed by their tremendous worth as an educational tool. We so very desperately hope that in Japan more than most countries, showing them to be sentient, adaptable beings will, if not keep these particular creatures in their natural habitat, at least help keep their future kin in the ocean, and away from the dinner table.


Our time in Okinawa prefecture was made possible by:

Mr Akio Matsumura, our guide who took us around all the castles and major historic sites in the glorious Okinawan sunshine. Not content with stopping there, he also took us to the Churaumi aquarium which, in rush hour traffic, takes a very long time. We’re very grateful for his patience and time.

The safe capture and housing of several thousand sea creatures.



John Fanteの親友、Arturo Bandiniのように、私達は海が大好きだ。それはキリスト教で比喩される海ではなく、文字通り本物の海が大好きなのだ。見るもの好き、海の中にいるのも好き、とにかく大好きだ。私達はその大好きな海を存分に見られる沖縄に来るのが楽しみでならなかった。そして“東洋のモルジブ”と書かれたパンフレットをちらっと見ては、わくわくしていたのだ。そしてここ沖縄の海、特に小さい島々周辺のそれは、それらのパンフレットに書かれていたように本当に美しい。













  1. Eric
    December 4, 2011

    I love this post!

    Not only the stunning pictures but also the whole philosophy behind it…

    … And I love Aquariums too!

    Now, back to main island and cold weather; keep yourselves warm & safe!

    See you soon

  2. cdb
    December 4, 2011

    The black shadows of those people in the aquarium reminds me of an iPod ad, for some reason.

  3. Okigaijin Okinawa
    December 15, 2011

    Very well done…Been there many times on our annual school trips and also as noted here, taking friends to see the 3rd largest aquarium in the world. I and Miyoko made our first trip just after it opened…Lots of good things happening…Look forward to the new additions shortly.