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Whale sharks rule at Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium

By: By Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2010-05-30

Nearly 10,000 visitors flock to the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium each day, most hoping to catch a glimpse of giant whale sharks feeding. The public has its opportunities to watch the whale sharks daily, with feeding times at 3pm and 5pm.

Churaumi, Asia’s largest aquarium—and fourth largest in the world—is an aquatics leader in keeping the giant whale sharks, which grow to lengths of more than 14 meters (46 feet). The excitement of viewing whale sharks—and giant mantas, too—in the Kuroshio Sea tank - Kuroshio means Black Current - has become even more of a thrill with the inclusion of a new female whale shark.

In-tank breeding of whale sharks under captive conditions is the direction Churaumi is now moving. Initially, the aquarium kept three male whale sharks, and the new swimmer in the pool is a female whale shark that replaced one of the males for in-tank breeding. The female whale shark was captured in a stationary fishing net off the shoreline of Yomitan Village, then cared for in a keeping net offshore of Yamagawa Port in Motobu. She was 5.2 meters (17 feet) long when captured. Whale sharks are presumed to be sexually mature when they are 9-10 meters (30-32 feet) long. The female whale shark now swimming in the Kuroshio Sea tank has grown to 5.7 meters (19 feet) and weighs 1.3 tons (2,916 pounds).

Churaumi officials say they envision the whale shark breeding project will take a very long time.

The Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, located in Motobu on the northwest Okinawa coast, is part of the Ocean Expo Park. The state-of-the-art facility opened in 2002, replacing the older, smaller Expo aquarium, and has been the first in the world to be successful in breeding mantas in an artificial environment.

A day at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium provides visitors a firsthand exposure to the underwater ecosystems that exist around the Ryukyu Islands. The aquarium’s giant Kuroshio Sea tank holds 7,500 cubic meters of water, and is home to 16,000 fish. Visitors watch the whale sharks, the largest inhabitants, and graceful manta rays as they glide through the waters, through the world’s second largest acrylic panel. The 8.2 meters by 22.5 meters panel, 60 centimeters thick, provides a panoramic view of underwater nature.

The aquarium’s main facility spans four floors, with the “Life in Inoo” touch pool near the entrance on the third level. Here, visitors can touch and handle starfish, shells, sea cucumbers and other species native to lagoons in Okinawa’s coral reefs. The curving ramp winds its way down to the first floor, allowing visitors to survey the sea life that reside near the shore, and on into deeper levels. The Coreal Sea tank and the Tropical Fish tank are open on top, permitting the sun’s rays to penetrate into the aqua waters.

From the second floor, guests can move back-and-forth between the Churaumi Theater and jewel tanks to learn about colorful fish, giant lobsters and eels, and smaller sea life. The second floor is also home to the Shark Research Lab, a place where again, hands-on opportunities exist to touch and feel the texture of shark skin and teeth. The special shark tank has bull sharks and other dangerous shark species swimming.

The Deep Sea tank exhibit is located on the first floor, providing insights to life in the dark, deep waters that even experienced divers cannot reach.

Churaumi is user friendly for everyone, including children and handicapped visitors. Numerous educational programs are offered each day, ranging from introductions to living coral, tropical fish and hands-on touching of seashells and starfish. While lectures are in Japanese, self-guided tour tapes are available in English, Chinese and Korean (reservation is required). The Churaumi Theater, as it offers 20-minute shows on its giant high-definition screen, does offer audio interpretation in English, Chinese and Korean. Theater shows run at the top of each hour from 10:00 to 16:00, and 17:30, 18:30 (Mar-Sep only). Behind-the-scenes tours, “the Kuroshio Exploration,” operate 11 times each day, exploring the backyard of the Kuroshio Sea tank.

The Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium is currently operating summer hours, open from 8:30am to 8 pm. The last admissions are at 7pm.


Admission fees are ¥1,800 for adults before discount, ¥1,200 for high school students before discount, and ¥600 before discount for elementary and junior high school students. A 30% discount to admissions after 4pm is in effect through next March. Group rates are available for 20 persons or more, and the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium offers an Annual Passport for repeat visitors. Both Japanese and American currencies are accepted.

An electric tour car provides shuttle service throughout the Ocean Expo Park. The fee is ¥200 for a day ticket. Restaurants and souvenir shops are located throughout both the aquarium and Ocean Expo Park. They all accept U.S. dollars, except the electric tour cars.

Getting There

Ocean Expo Park is located in Motobu, northwest of Nago City. It’s roughly a 2½-hour drive from Naha, using the Expressway. The toll is ¥1,000 for a standard size car. Take the expressway to the northern end, Kyoda Interchange, and then travel north on Route 58 to Nago City, then west on Route 449 to Motobu. There are many signs to guide you.

Buses run from Naha to Nago. Take bus 65 or 66 from Nago Bus Terminal. It's about three-hour trip from Naha, depending on traffic.

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