IMAGINE an encounter with a real shark, a rendezvous with a live stingray, or a date with seahorses and starfishes, right at the heart of the metropolis.

With the opening of the country’s own Ocean Park oceanarium last March, Filipinos can finally get a chance to admire the country’s underwater fauna. Situated behind the Quirino Grandstand by the Manila Bay, the facility boasts of 250 species of different water creatures on display, 95 per cent of which comes from Philippine waters.

The oceanarium is only part of a fusion concept facility that characterizes Manila Ocean Park. One of the first in the world, the facility will include a marine-themed hotel and mall which are both set to be finished within the second quarter of 2009.

The animals are showcased in seven exhibits, named in Filipino to show national pride.

The first exhibit in the oceanarium is Agos, the only exhibit that uses fresh water tanks for its fishes. According to Jappy Lim, program development specialist of Manila Ocean Park, Agos serves to show the interconnection between sea and land. The exhibit also takes note of the people’s familiarity with fresh water, which we commonly use for everyday activities such as washing, bathing, and drinking.

Agos is the only exhibit garbed with various flora and constructed with an open-air setting, which allows visitors to explore the exhibit under natural weather to mimic the rainforest.

Most of the fishes in the exhibit came from Filipino hobbyists, said Lim. Featured in the exhibit are the Arapima, the largest fresh water fish in the world; the Alligator Gar, the largest fresh water fish in North America; and the Arowana, a large fish that belongs to the same family as the Arapima.

A touch pool is located near the exhibit’s exit allowing visitors to interact with various animals such as starfishes, crabs, and baby sharks.

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Bahura, the second exhibit, showcases various reef fishes found in the country’s coral reefs. According to Lim, Bahura presents the diversity of life in the Philippine seas, which has the highest concentration of biodiversity in the world next to Indonesia.

Some of the creatures enclosed in the exhibit’s 46 water tanks are giant clams, clown fishes, and common seahorses. An exception to the reef fishes’ theme in the exhibit is its main attraction, the Japanese Giant Spider Crab, the largest arthropod in the world. It is found in Japanese deep waters and can reach a width of 13 feet.

Laot, the third exhibit, displays fishes found in deeper waters of the sea. Many of the fishes found in the exhibit are edible fishes, such as Dalagang Bukid, Pampano, and the largest species of Lapu-Lapu in the world. Also located in this exhibit is the largest 360-degree audio-visual projector in the Philippines, Lim said. It features a conservation message from Lory Tan, vice chairman of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

On the other hand, Buhay na Karagatan, the oceanarium’s main attraction, houses over 100 water species, such as guitar fishes and sting rays. The largest tank in the Philippines, according to Lim, the exhibit is the only one in the country with a tunnel that spans 25 meters and with a capacity of 270, 000 gallons of water.

Ang Kailaliman, meanwhile, features reef fishes such as the Barracuda, other species of rays, such as spotted eagle rays and cow-nosed rays, and spiny lobsters. Pagi, on the other hand, is an overhang tank exhibit allowing visitors to get a top and bottom view of stingrays. Pating, the last exhibit in the oceanarium, showcases different species of sharks such as leopard sharks, white tip sharks, and black tip reef sharks.

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A multimedia area is located near Pating, which allows children to do arts and crafts and reading activities related to marine life. Also located in the area is a WWF display of open sea animals not found in the exhibits, and interactive projections of pollution scenes.

Variations

Although the oceanarium operates similar to other oceanariums, noticeable differences in the attractions set it apart from others in the country and abroad.

One noticeable difference is the lack of marine mammals such as sea lions, dolphins, and open sea fishes, such as tuna. According to Lim, the oceanarium does not exhibit marine mammals because keeping them in captivity is viewed as cruelty to animals.

“Marine mammals are more intelligent than other animals, which makes it cruel to keep them on display or force them to perform tricks. Marine mammals and open sea fishes may also find their swimming quarters cramped while in captivity since they are used to the open sea,” Lim said.

Instead of displaying these animals, the oceanarium provided the WWF display area for models of marine mammals so that visitors can familiarize themselves with animals not in the oceanarium.

Another attraction that sets the oceanarium apart is its main attraction, Buhay Na Karagatan, which mimics underwater life. This attraction boasts of a viewing range of 220 degrees, unlike other oceanariums, such as the Underwater World oceanarium in Sentosa, Singapore, which only offers 180 degrees. Lim said that with the increased viewing range, visitors can see more of the fishes showcased in the exhibit.

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What also separates the Manila Ocean Park is the absence of a walkalator, which ferries visitors through the length of the tunnel. “A walkalator only serves as a method of crowd control in other oceanariums, which hinders visitors from fully appreciating the exhibit. Without a walkalator, visitors can stand in the same place, take pictures, and admire the fishes,” Lim said.

Education for conservation

Lim said that the Oceanarium, through its exhibits, aims to raise environmental awareness. It also promotes common environmental activities such as Earth Day, coastal clean-up of Manila Bay, World Turtles’ Day, and World Ocean’s Day.

Ocean Park’s another way of educating visitors is drawing attention to the fact that the fishes in their marine tanks get their water from dirty Manila bay water that has gone through complex filtration systems. With this information, they are able to illustrate that the Manila Bay can still be rehabilitated to give sea creatures clean and healthy water.

Ocean Park also encourages environmental conservation through insinuating the need to recycle, refrain from illegal fishing methods, and minimize pollution.

“We tell visitors of how the lives of the creatures they see in the exhibits will be endangered if they do nothing to save the environment. What you do in the city may affect the lives of those living in the sea,” Lim said.

According to Lim, they organize these programs to point out to the visitors their responsibility as Filipinos to protect their marine resources, since the Philippines has one of the highest concentrations of marine biodiversity in the world.

“What we have is something that others do not have. Therefore, it is our responsibility to take care of it,” he said.

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