The first time I saw a large indoor aquarium was at the Mall of America in Minneapolis, Minnesota back in 2001 (the “original MoA”, for those familiar with the “other MoA” in Manila Bay). Known as one of the largest malls in the US of A, it was a sprawling expanse of shops punctuated by a little theme park in the middle, but it had something more to offer underground. Beneath the building is a large indoor aquarium, with fishes as small as the common guppies found in household aquariums, to various species of sharks. Visitors are taken around through a stretch of conveyor belts (or “travelators” in airport parlance), meandering inside a tube along the artificial “sea floor”. It was the first time I saw anything like it, and I previously had no inkling that it was possible to build such things. I was struck with awe – our something more bombastic than “awe” – and I thought it would be a once in a lifetime experience…but it wasn’t.
A year later I saw another one, this time at the Underwater World Singapore in Sentosa Island. Sentosa back then was still a bit “underdeveloped”, by Singapore standards. The place where the Resorts World stands at present was still just a wharf, visitor center and monorail terminal, not the mega entertainment complex that it is now. People back then went around the island through the small, and now defunct, open air monorail, and the main attractions were still the Underwater World and the dolphin show at the Dolphin Lagoon. The Underwater World looked pretty much the same as the one at the Mall of America, and I thought to myself, “how nice it would be if we could also have one of these in my home country, so the average Filipino could also see what a shark looks like in real life, and not just on DVD (or VCD back then)”. Today the Underwater World is still there in Sentosa, though it’s been reduced to a side-show ever since the neighboring Universal Studios stole its thunder.
Back in the Philippines, we already had a dolphin show at that time, courtesy of the Ocean Adventure at Subic, but a large indoor aquarium was not yet even a wish for the country. It would take years before we would finally get one, in the form of the Manila Ocean Park (not to be confused with the Ocean Park in Hong Kong which is a totally different company). The Manila Ocean Park opened in 2008, and we were among the throng of curious locals who visited that same year. The place was a blockbuster hit, and it was always full to the brim. Our entry was a tight squeeze, though we weren’t surprised, it’s the first time the country has seen anything like it after all.
Three years later, we were back that the Ocean Park, and guess what? The place was still a tight squeeze, and people were still packing it like it just opened yesterday. On one hand, it’s good since it shows the locals really do appreciate these things, a little over-enthusiastically I might say, but on the other hand, it really is a head-ache queueing up that long, and banging elbows (read: not rubbing, but banging) with people around as everyone tries to squeeze into staircases and tunnels.
Now that I’ve seen three of these aquariums, I think I’ve already seen enough, and in fact we already skipped the Siam Ocean World and Aquaria KLCC when we visited Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur respectively. Fishes in tanks will look the same where ever that tank is located anyway.
Still, this an experience that I would really recommend to everyone, whether young in age or young at heart. An while I’m blessed enough that a thing like this didn’t turn out to be a “once in a lifetime” experience, I pretty sure that for many others, it will be. And with that, I’m certainly happy that we finally have one here on our shores.
* All photos taken from Manila Ocean Park last July 2011. Taken with Olympus E-420 and Zuiko 14-54mm f2.8-3.5.