Opening its doors on July 14 after almost five years of preparation, Hanhwa Aqua Planet Jeju has already become a hot spot for Jeju tourists and locals. Located on the east side of the island in Seongsan, Seogwipo City, this beautiful new aquarium features marine life from around the globe just a short hike from Jeju Island’s iconic Seongsan Sunrise Peak.
Now Asia’s largest aquarium, with a floor space of 25,600m2 and 10,800 tons of water collectively, Aqua Planet Jeju showcases about 48,000 aquatic animals in 500 different species within a state of the art facility that has a hip and modern feel and plenty of space for pedestrian traffic. The facility is divided into three sections: the aquarium, a performance hall, and a special education center for children. A colorful tank replicating the sea around Munseom, a small islet in Seogwipo City, greets guests as they enter the aquarium from the lobby.
Visitors to the aquarium first meet tanks featuring marine life from the five oceans of the world: the Arctic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Ocean, and the Antarctic Ocean. I was surprised to see that an Antarctic Ocean exists, but after some brief Internet research I discovered that there’s an ongoing debate in the scientific community as to whether there are four oceans or five. Aqua Planet has designed its world oceans exhibit to feature each of the oceans’ marine life in slanted tanks that give visitors a closer look at each regions’ aquatic animals.
Fish highlighted in this section include the buffalo sculpin, kelp greenling, cod, rose starfish, lookdown fish, blue lined snapper, Picasso fish, blotcheye soldier-fish, oriental sweetlips, longfin bannerfish, naso tang, yellow tang, emperor angelfish, dog face puffer, red toothed triggerfish, red lionfish, kelp crab, red starfish, smooth lumpsucker and sailfin sculpin. My personal favorites were the Picasso fish and the oriental sweetlip fish, not only because they have fun names but because they are vibrantly colored in an interesting way.
The section following is dedicated to harbor seals, or, as the Aqua Planet workers refer to them as, the “dancing” harbor seals. These seals have a lot of natural lighting, a characteristic of this aquarium that is unique, according to the aquarium’s assistant manager of public relations and marketing, Kang Eun Young. The seals’ swimming space amounts to multiple stories and several aqua tunnels for the animals’ swimming and dancing pleasure. In fact, it’s possible to see seals swimming on both the first and second floors of the aquarium.
The aquarium walk continued on to the penguin section where both African penguins and Humboldt penguins harmoniously resided. While these two penguins do not live together in the wild, it’s possible to put them together here because they come from similar climates. Spectators can get up close and personal with these penguins by ducking down and crawling into a space with peep holes that look into the penguins’ habitat. Later on, visitors get to walk through an aquarium tunnel where little penguins dart in all directions above and around Aqua Planet goers, and this ended up being my favorite photo opportunity.
There are several special exhibits in the aquarium, including an area with Daepo Columnar Joint-inspired pillars dedicated to the fish of Jeju like the giant mottled eel, Japanese eel, Ayu sweet fish, stone moroki, and more. Following is an aqua safari highlighting fresh water animals like the Asian small-clawed otters and fish specific to some of the world’s most famous rivers: the Yangze River, Han River, Mekong River, Mississippi River, and the Amazon River.
One of my favorite tanks in the Living Ocean section is the one with the moray eels. I’m very familiar with these animals, but it was apparent that Koreans are not because they were squealing with horror and delight, and that was entertaining. One of the most interesting animals in this section for me was the garden eel, a worm-like eel with bright yellow eyes, and is poised and ready for… I don’t know what. Other crowd pleasers include the clownfish and the Japanese spider crabs. With crabs that big, it’s possible to get a good look at their faces, making me wonder how I ever ate something so terrifying.
The aquarium’s grand finale is a tank that is 23 meters wide by 8.5 meters high, and showcases Jeju Island’s ecosystem. With a super-sized acrylic glass at a thickness of 60 centimeters, this tank was custom made, costing 10 billion won, and it took two weeks to fill it with 6,000 tons of water. Fifty species of fish reside here including the impressive whale shark with its frightening appearance but gentle character. The whale shark’s roommates include the mantra ray, the eagle ray, and more.
On top of this, for the viewing pleasure of the guests in another tank that contains sardines and several small sharks, haenyeo (Jeju women divers) perform five times daily.
The aquarium wraps up with a petting pool for children where they have the chance to pet fish. From there visitors are lead to a performance hall with a 1,500 person capacity where walrus, sea lion, dolphin, and synchronized swimming performances are held four times daily. The third and final section of Aqua Planet is an ocean Exploratorium for children (primarily in Korean) with various scientific exhibits pertaining to ocean tides, tsunamis, and more.
Hanhwa Hotel and Resort, Korea’s leading aquarium business, is the mastermind behind this beautiful new facility. They’ve also built a sister aquarium in Yeosu that opened in May 2012 for the World Expo, and they anticipate opening a third in Ilsan in December 2013. Previously, the largest aquarium in Asia was the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium.
The admission fee of 37,600 won for adults initially seemed expensive to me, but after doing a quick search for aquarium entrance fees in the US, this is the approximate going rate based on the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Georgia Aquarium, both of which require $34.95 for adult entrance.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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