The Okinawan islands are well-known for their coral reefs and the tropical fish that populate them, but it can be hard to see them all in one place even if you go snorkeling—I mean, maybe you see an angelfish or a grouper, but what about whale sharks? What about sea cucumbers? What about the fish that you wish you could see, like the venomous stonefish? You can see all these fish and more at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium!
The aquarium is part of a larger complex of attractions called Ocean Expo Park, which is focused around the local flora, fauna, and people of the Okinawan islands. The park includes the aquarium, a botanical garden, an arboretum, a traditional Okinawan village, the Oceanic Culture Museum, a beach, and multiple restaurants. Although all the attractions are very interesting, the aquarium is the most famous because it held the title of world’s largest aquarium until being overtaken by the Georgia Aquarium in 2005. Even now, though, it has one of the biggest acrylic glass viewing panels, which gives you an unbeatable view into the big tank.
We took the escalators down to the aquarium from the high parking spaces above. There were topiary and flower mosaics everywhere, and wide plazas with fountains and statues. Loren guided us to the open air tanks where local sea turtles swam, with underground viewing panels to peek at them and the manatees from below.
We sat for a dolphin show, and I tried my best to translate the explanations about how dolphins jump and swim and play. I’ve never been to Sea World, so watching these animals jump fully two body lengths out of their tank was completely stunning! They were amazingly choreographed with one another, performing tricks and splashing the audience in the front, even dancing to traditional Okinawan music. They couldn’t have been more charming if they tried.
Dolphin show over, we bought our tickets into the aquarium itself, then stepped through the gates to the first exhibit: a touch tank filled with starfish and sea cucumbers. Although I’ve lived in Oregon for several years and even lived on the coast for a while, I’d never actually seen a live starfish. I’d definitely never seen a sea cucumber, live or dead. I was nervous to touch them, but Loren encouraged me to get my hands in there, reminding me that none of these animals were dangerous in the least.
I went for a sea star first. It was brick red with five arms and looked a little squishy. I was sure it would be soft and pettable—maybe the ocean equivalent of a cuddly cat! But instead its body was hard with a pebbly texture, as though it had an exoskeleton. At least it didn’t mind me petting it; it didn’t even seem to notice. the sea cucumbers took even more courage: black and spiny, it didn’t seem possible that it was safe enough to put in a tank where kids could get their hands on it. I touched it gingerly and was shocked to find that its spines were actually soft little protuberances, and that its body was perilously soft. It was so soft I worried I’d hurt it! It stroked its back, and it wriggled in response. It didn’t seem hurt at all—perhaps its soft body is a defense mechanism?—but I couldn’t tear myself away from it, even as tiny blue fish explored my fingers, darting toward and away from me.
Finally I had to take myself away from the sea cucumber and see the rest of the aquarium. We continued to the big enclosed tanks, reading the descriptions about the various kinds of local fish. There were grouper, angelfish, lionfish, pufferfish, starfish, clownfish cuttlefish…Name a fish and it was probably there, darting in and out of the coral. While the aquarium halls were rather dark, the tanks were well-lit, casting blue light around them in pools. The fish themselves were so colorful against the blue it was hard to take your eyes off it all.
As we moved deeper into the building it was easy to lose sense of direction and time, and although there was the clear sense that you were getting quite deep underground, who knew how deep? It was impossible to see the top of the water from where we stood, and it seemed as though we were standing at the bottom of a brilliant blue sea. The big tank gave way to several small tanks, one half holding freshwater mangrove species and the other holding species that live in the coral reefs around the island. There were lobsters as long as my two hands splayed out, and delicate jellyfish in beautiful broods; tiny crabs nestled in anemones and baby squid flitting in fits and starts. There were also displays of the islands’ dangerous animals: the diadema sea urchin with sharp delicate spines longer than my fingers, and the terrifying crown of thorns starfish that makes my feet hurt to think about. Interactive displays showed how the cone shell stings and how the camouflaged stonefish reflexively envenomates anything that steps on it.
By the time we left, I felt like I could never swim in Okinawa again, and was glad that we’d gone snorkeling before I knew about these horrors. Who knew there were so many beautiful and painful ways to die just minding your own business in the sea?
As we came down a final corridor and suddenly the huge tank was just there, bigger than it was possible to imagine, broad as a house and two stories tall, hundreds of animals swimming together in a torrent: rays flapping like birds, lemon sharks darting their heads side to side, striped tiger sharks, and tuna dashing like silver bullets through the fray. Through it all, three massive whale sharks languidly swam, each as long as two cars parked bumper to bumper. As we walked closer, it became harder to look away, and harder to keep moving forward, the view of them all swimming together breathtaking. The whale sharks in particular were amazing—that such an animal could even exist! It was like seeing an elephant for the first time and realizing that it could squash your four-year-old body without even noticing, but at the same time feeling no fear.
We stayed and stared for many minutes, maybe half an hour, entranced by the movement of these animals. Occasionally a detail would spring out of the mass of smooth skin: the rays’ funny smiles, the ridges along the back of a whale shark, the perfect sharp spines along a tuna’s back. At one point I noticed a small Atlantic white-sided dolphin swimming in with them all, ducking beneath the rays and and dashing between the fish to keep itself busy.
Suddenly I was pulled out of my reverie: there’s cool stuff on the far side of the tank! We climbed the stairs to the Shark Research Lab, a massive interactive exhibit with the stated purpose of helping people understanding sharks rather than fear them. Whether they succeed on that point is uncertain, but there were so many interesting exhibits that I found myself running back and forth between them like a kid. I felt real shark teeth still stuck in preserved skeletal jaws and serrated like tiny knives, and ray teeth as well, which were smooth and stacked like a row of pebbles; I felt shark skin, rough like a cat’s sandpapery tongue; I saw a preserved shark brain next to a preserved dolphin brain and was shocked to see what a huge difference there is, not to mention how a dolphin brain looks almost the same and is almost as big as a human brain; I stood inside a replica of an ancient megalodon mouth. I suppose some people might consider the exhibits creepy, but to me this was like a little sharky paradise. I kept going back and back to the ray teeth to run my fingers over them.
We walked downstairs again to find a huge column of glass in the hallway, showing the thickness of the glass in the aquarium. At almost 24 inches thick, the refraction through it was strong enough to fully hide a person, which my brother delighted in doing, unable to hide himself purposefully but fully able to do it accidentally.
We continued to the “Aqua Room,” a small tunnel that let us sit beneath the fish as they all swam. The whale sharks blocked out the light as they passed overhead, casting huge shadows over our upturned faces.
Eventually the path curved away from the big tanks and revealed several smaller. The darkness of the halls grew deeper here, and the tanks themselves were not as brilliantly lit, to make the space more comfortable for animals accustomed to greater depths and deeper darkness. Everything down here felt dark and slow, and it was easy to take time at each tank as I began to feel sleepy and happy in the darkness. The brilliant colors of the fish in the shallows were lost down here; instead, most were silver or transparent with only a few exceptions: a Japanese spider crab, body as big as my head and leg span longer than my arm span, and the vermilion flame snapper.
Signs explained how cold the water was for these fish, all of whom lived at least 200 feet down, and there was even a tank where you could reach up and touch it. At 9 degrees Celsius (48 Fahrenheit) it wasn’t the coldest water I’d ever felt, but it was definitely unpleasant, barely warmer than the water you’d get out of a refrigerator.
We rounded a corner and the light began to increase steadily until we came to the gift shop at the end where we were suddenly flooded with light, noise, and merchandise. I still felt stuck in the undersea world, though, and floated past the displays in something like confusion.
I took way too many cool pictures to fit in one post, so if you want to see more, check out my aquarium photo essay!
Address: 424 Ishikawa, Motobu, Kunigami District, Okinawa Prefecture 905-0206
Price: 1850 yen (~$15.50 USD) for adults, 1230 yen (~$10.50 USD) for high school-age kids, 610 yen (~$5.25 USD) for elementary and middle school-age kids, and free for kids under 6.
- All of Ocean Expo Park is “barrier free,” meaning that there are wheelchair accessible routes to all attractions.
- When looking for the aquarium on your car’s GPS, enter “Ocean Expo Park” rather than “Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium.”
- Aquarium admission is only required for the indoor tanks; you can see the dolphin shows and the outdoor tanks (manatees, sea turtles) for free!
- There are lots of ways to save money on admission to attractions around Ocean Expo Park. At the aquarium, you can get a small discount by purchasing “After 4” tickets, which let you into the aquarium after 4 p.m. This gives you two and a half hours to enjoy the aquarium, which is plenty of time (as long as you’ve already seen the outdoor aquarium attractions) and lets you focus on the less expensive Ocean Expo Park attractions before 4. Alternatively, you can present your full-price aquarium ticket to get a 50% discount on admission to the Tropical Dream Center. This can be a good deal if your party is mostly kids between 6 and 15, as the discount is slightly more than you’d get for buying After 4 tickets for that age group; otherwise, it makes more sense to pay full price for the Tropical Dream Center and get After 4 tickets for the aquarium.
- All the exhibits are in English and Japanese, but if you have trouble reading (or someone in your party has trouble with one of those languages) you can rent an audio guide for free. Guides come in Japanese, English, Chinese, and Korean. Bear in mind that you must make your reservation 7 days in advance.