Kenting 003 – Whale Sharks and Manta Rays
Sunday December 5, 2010
9:00 a.m. Formost Hotel Lobby – Kenting, Taiwan
My big plan for Saturday was to visit the National Museum of Marine Biology & Aquarium, henceforth known as the “Aquarium”, and it was an extraordinary experience – far better than I had expected.
I didn’t know much about the Aquarium, but it was one of the main reasons I decided to come to Kenting this weekend. I saw on the Internet that they had a large tank with a whale shark. I found that hard to believe, and I fully expected the whale shark to be a fiction. If they did have a whale shark, then I assumed the Aquarium as a whole would be a pretty good one. I can’t even remember the last time I went to a good aquarium. Perhaps I’ve never even been to one and only have the images in my head from television. I remember I had plans to go to one in Vancouver when I was back in Canada, but that didn’t work out.
I also didn’t know where the aquarium was. I assumed it was in Kenting, but it didn’t seem to be. At least I didn’t see any signs and I didn’t see it on any local maps. I asked the people at the Formost hotel about it, but they didn’t know the English words for aquarium or anything like it. In the end, my only hint was a local tourist map that the hotel provided me. It showed some kind of marine museum on the coast near a small town called Houwan. This didn’t make any sense to me because that was on the far side of Hengchung and seemed too far away from anything. I thought an aquarium of that size would have to be near a major center.
In any event, this name on a map was the only thing I had to go on and I set off on my scooter. I could go there by the main road through Hengchung, a prospect which didn’t thrill me, or by a series of small roads following the coast. That seemed the obvious way to go, but as often happens in Taiwan, I got completely lost. My maps rarely match what I see around me. Names never seem to be the same and there are usually many more roads than my maps show. I thought I could simply keep heading west and I would have to reach the water eventually. That was a good plan, but I quickly lost my bearings, and I had no idea where I was or where I was heading. All I had to do was keep heading west and I’d hit the water, but try as I might I couldn’t find a road heading west. I kept getting pushed in other directions. I knew I’d find the aquarium eventually, so I wasn’t that worried about it. There was no way to get completely lost without first crossing over the main road, and I’d certainly recognize the main road. Once there, I’d have to decide whether to go north or south and then I’d get oriented again.
I have a map in front of me now as I write this, and I’m trying to recreate the route I ended up following, but there’s no way. As I said, there are many more roads out there than are shown. That I found the aquarium at all is a complete miracle. I eventually linked up with a bigger road than the small ones I had been on. There were a couple of signs in English pointing to towns that were on my map. None of this helped me at all and I still couldn’t figure out where I was. I could either go left or right. My instincts said I had to go right. Going left seemed to have me going back in the direction I’d just come from. Just then, however, I saw a tour bus go by. I turned left to follow it and within a hundred meters I saw the aquarium. There it was – a giant complex with a massive parking lot, and just at the point when I thought I was as lost as I’d ever been, I was sitting just a hundred meters away from it. Thank goodness for that tour bus.
I approached the aquarium with a bit of trepidation. I still didn’t know whether this whole trip would be a waste of time and this would be an attraction of far more hype than substance. I saw signs saying that I had to pay NT$20 to park my scooter, but there was nowhere to pay this fee. I simply drove into the parking lot and found the scooter area and parked my scooter. There weren’t many people around and I walked up to the ticket counter and got my ticket for 1 adult for NT$450 ($15 Canadian). I liked that there was a discounted entrance fee for anyone in a wheelchair or with a disability, and it was called a “Philanthropist” ticket. Philanthropists paid less? There were the usual amusing signs in the bathrooms. That’s one area where the Taiwanese never seem to get the English right. “Beware of your belongings, in case it drops into the toilet,” warned one sign. “Please do not dipose hygenic objects in the toilet,” said another. A third: “Please keep all dirty things out of the stool.”
Beyond the entrance was a wide-open area with little more than a pool of water with some large plastic figures of dolphins in it. Families grouped there to take pictures with their toddlers. This wasn’t looking good. Just a short distance away on the left, I saw a sign that said “Sea Turtle Conservation Display.” Inside was a smallish tank with three sea turtles. Surrounding the sea turtles and dominating them was a large souvenir store selling all manner of cute sea turtle products. The people who came into the Sea Turtle Conservation Display blew right past the actual sea turtles to browse the souvenirs. I stopped, of course, to check out the sea turtles, and they seemed wise old creatures. They surprised me with the intelligence in their eyes and in their movements. They swam up to the glass where I had crouched down and hovered there for a few minutes with their eyes locked on me and checking me out from head to foot. I got the sense that they were looking me over and figuring me out. I also got the sense that they were thinking and sharing a nod and a wink about how they, the real McCoy, were being completely shown-up by the plastic souvenir imitations.
With the empty entrance and the somewhat odd sea turtle display, my hopes for the aquarium were sinking fast. Past the sea turtle display, there was a fountain display of life-size whales frolicking in the water, leaping out and spraying water in all directions. With the still high winds that were blowing, everyone had to stay upwind. Downwind, you got soaked. Even when you stayed out of the wet area, you got caught and soaked (as I found out) when a sudden blast of extra water came out of the nearest whale’s blow hole.
Past the fountain was a large building and I went through the entrance. This was the main entrance to the aquarium itself and was the first indication that you really were somewhere special. It seems to me that this is where visitors should be deposited immediately upon entering. It would certainly make a much more dramatic and favorable impression.
It wasn’t until later that I figured it out, but the aquarium is divided into three main displays: Waters of Taiwan, the Coral Kingdom, and Waters of the World. The main entrance where I found myself was in the middle of Waters of Taiwan and the Coral Kingdom. The ceiling rose a good hundred feet into the air and large models of fish and other marine life, including an orca, hung from the ceiling. There was also a large waterfall. Without quite realizing what I was doing, I drifted through a doorway into what I found out later was the Coral Kingdom. The highlight of the Coral Kingdom was an immense tank filled with hundreds, perhaps thousands of fish and other creatures including a dozen stingrays and sharks. A series of underwater tunnels led you right through the middle of different sections of the tank with sharks and stingrays flying above and around you on all sides. It was very impressive and it took me nearly an hour just to tear myself away from the first tunnel alone. I didn’t know that this tunnel was just the first of three tunnels, and I didn’t want to give up the views too soon. The stingrays were by far the most impressive. They flew over the tunnel in groups of four or five, curving and swirling around and back again. They made me laugh each time because their gills and nostrils and mouth made up an almost perfect clown face, particularly with the bulbous nose sticking out front. None of these features were really what they looked like. Their eyes were on the front and top, but two nostrils on the bottom looked like eyes, and I couldn’t shake the feeing that these rays were smiling and laughing down on me as they flew past overhead. In a way, these rays weren’t served very well by their appearance. Seen from other angles, they were majestic. There’s no other word to describe them. There was something otherworldly about their long wings and tail and the mysterious rhythmic flickering of their long gill openings as water was pumped through them. They put me in mind of spaceships, of alien life here to check us out and report back, perhaps watch over us.
There’s nothing more I can say about them than that their presence even managed to overpower the bedlam of the crowds of people visiting them. Signs everywhere asked people not to use their flash when taking pictures, but flashes went off all around me. Signs also asked people not to knock on the glass. I suppose people obeyed this sign in a way. They didn’t actually knock on the glass. They punched it and slammed it and kicked it. There were no signs asking people to be quiet, so I guess the dozens of children screaming at the tops of their voices weren’t breaking any rules. Luckily, I had my usual full range of electronics with me, and I took out my MP3 player and put on some suitable music and drowned out the chaos around me. I went through the rest of my time at the aquarium totally lost in the music and the wonder of the place.
One tunnel led into another and then into another providing different views and angles on the creatures I’d already seen, plus views of new ones hiding in nooks and crannies. Two massive rays were shy and lurking in the dark corner of a simulated shipwreck. A massive fish, called a grouper I believe, rested quietly beside his log on the bottom. There seemed to be no end to the fish on display and the layout of the tank and the tunnels and the various viewing windows gave a wonderful experience of everything there.
From the Coral Kingdom, I went to the Waters of Taiwan display. The highlight of the aquarium is here – a massive viewing window the size of a movie theater screen – 50 feet wide and 14 feet high. Inside was a wondrous collection of fish including an immense whale shark. The whale shark was a bit of a tease, and I only got a full view of it once when I first entered the room. After that, it swam in slow circles around the top of the tank so that you could only see it from the bottom. Still, that was incredible as its massive tail waved back and forth fanning the smaller fish that made up its entourage. I kept hoping it would come down and swim through the central area again, but it never did. There were more than enough fish to keep me interested, though, and it took a strong effort on my part to finally tear myself way. I could have stayed there for the rest of the day.
I was more and more impressed with the aquarium as the day went by. There was a special exhibit of poisonous creatures up on the second floor of the main building. Every corner I turned revealed more tanks with more incredible creatures on display. I wondered at the massive effort it must be to maintain a collection like that – feeding and caring for that vast range of marine life, cleaning all those tanks. I can’t even imagine what it would take.
I forgot to mention another display in the Coral Kingdom that amazed me. This was a tank containing two beluga whales. I’d never seen a beluga whale before, and they astonished me. They are mammals, of course, not fish, and that was so apparent in their appearance and their movements. For all the world, they looked to me like humans inside big muscular suits. They moved and twisted around like a human would, not like a fish. And they were beautiful. I think they were the most beautiful animals I’ve ever seen.
These two parts of the aquarium were more than enough for me, but there was still much more to be seen in the Waters of the World display. It took me a while to figure out where it was, but it turned out to be in a separate building around the back. I can see a lot of people visiting the aquarium and missing it altogether. As it turned out, I even missed one entire section of the Waters of the World. I didn’t even realize I’d missed it until I’d returned to Kenting and looked more carefully at a brochure I’d taken home.
The theme of the Waters of the World was the evolution of the oceans and life in the oceans. There were 3D movies of the giant creatures that lived in the early oceans swimming around. The live displays were of unique creatures found in the out-of-the-way places around the world – creatures that were direct descendants of the inhabitants of the young oceans. There were also harp seals (with many a grandmother teaching their grandchildren how to beat their hands against the glass…). The section I missed – which I really regret – contained penguins, puffins, and a giant octopus. The brochure tells me that “visitors are often surprised at the sudden appearance of a giant octopus. The octopus seems to be ready to attack the spectators, causing visitors to hold your breath.” I doubt it. However, I would have liked to have seen it. I’m sure it’s very friendly at heart.
It was getting late when I left the aquarium, and dark clouds had moved in. I followed the main road out of the aquarium, which led right back to the main road leading back to Hengchung and then Kenting. I was inspired by the aquarium and I drove at high speed, barely noticing the heavy traffic. It took a lot longer to get back to Kenting than I expected. I guess I had gone further on those backroads than I’d realized. Then again, scooters seem to make distances seem much farther than they really are.
It was Saturday night in Kenting, and the streets were full and bustling. Loud dance music came out of many places trying to entice customers inside. The places with a “Live Show” had girls in bikinis dancing outside on the street. The December weather meant that management allowed them to have a heavy jacket draped over their shoulders. The jacket had to be dropped down from time to time to reveal the bikini top underneath. It was an odd sight in family-friendly Kenting, but it didn’t surprise me. I’ve seen many such odd sights in Taiwan.