Monday, 12 August 2013

A Night at the Aquarium

Most public attractions shut their doors on the chattering masses at closing time, and an air of mystery surrounds what goes on after hours in the quiet halls and passages. Not so the National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium in Pingtung County, which allows a set number of visitors to stay overnight, and go behind the scenes to see where fish and sea creatures are fed and bred. After the tours are over, guests can wander the site as they choose, before bedding down next to their favourite tank to sleep.

Tickets for this special experience have to be booked quite far in advance as it's very popular, so we had many weeks of excited anticipation before travelling down last weekend. It's a long way for us to go, catching the HSR down to Kaohsiung, which was as far south as we'd ever been, and then the bus for another 2 1/2 hours, so we made a long weekend of it and spent our first night further down the coast, where there are sandy beaches, many hotels, night markets and other tourist attractions. We tried the beach, but the sea was so rough, with a typhoon circling off the coast somewhere, that no one dared venture in the water. 
The Howard Beach Hotel, where we stayed, had an indoor water park and an outdoor pool, so we still had plenty to do. When we set off for the aquarium the next day, the ocean had turned beautifully still. Oh well, next time!

Touring the aquarium during normal opening hours was an experience in itself. The exhibits in the three areas - Waters of Taiwan, Coral Kingdom and Waters of the World - were fascinating. My favourites were the jellyfish, corals and the deep sea scavengers.

There were some amazing tanks. This is the kelp tank, which demonstrates how tall this seaweed can grow, from the seabed to the surface.

Conrad enjoyed the research submarine simulator, in which you seek out marine life to record and take samples from. He also loved the two outdoor water play areas, where some of the kids could keep cool at least, in the sweltering heat.

Our backstage tours started once the aquarium had closed to the general public. We were taken to see the staff work areas, which didn't look as pretty as the displays, but in some ways were even more interesting. We saw the upper area of a one million gallon tank, and our tour guide pointed out where the sharks and rays sleep at night. She explained that the feeding shows the public sees are just snacks for the fish, and that daily diet for in the particular tank we saw consisted of 100 kgs of mackerel.

We fed the jellyfish. Our guide explained that, because they're transparent, you can actually see which jellyfish had no food in their stomachs.

The blue tanks you can see filling with water periodically tipped over, simulating the effect of waves on the seashore for the fish in the tank below.

Our guide showed us a jellyfish that has a symbiotic relationship with algae.

We were also taken around the exhibits, which were now quite dark, to see how the fish behave at night.

Once the tours and dinner were over, we were free to wander at will. Conrad and I took the opportunity to go outside into the grounds. The aquarium site is quite remote, and with most of the outdoor lighting turned off, we could see a sky full of stars. In the background the only sound was of waves gently lapping the beach nearby.

At around 9.30 we were all brought back together to set up sleeping arrangements before the staff left us for the night. Family names were drawn randomly and the rest of us were entertained with a quiz while the chosen ones could select a spot to put down their mattress, pillow and comforter.

It was a little tense, as everyone had formed an opinion about where they'd like to sleep, and of course some places couldn't accommodate everyone who wanted to sleep there. But it turned out well for those, such as us, who were drawn towards the end. What might have appeared to be a good spot actually wasn't. The tunnels, which cost extra, are cold and, because they're thoroughfares, busier than other places. In other places it was so dark after the lights went out at 10.30 it was impossible to see anything.

We had little choice in the end, along with many others, and had to sleep in front of the largest tank in the Waters of Taiwan area, but this was one of the best places. There were three exit sign lights that stayed on all night, so whenever you woke up you could still see the fish. I'd been expecting to have a bad night's sleep, disturbed by people talking and babies crying etc., but everyone made a big effort to be quiet. (There were a few snorers, it must be said.)

The next day we were taken out onto the beach to search the rock pools and learn about the plants and coral. Then we had a whole day to continue to explore the aquarium.

I think I'll remember this trip as one of the many highlights of our time in Taiwan.

No comments: