Asian AQUARIA… Who’s doing what, where and how well…

27 November, 2010

Filed under: Everything else — admin @ 2:27 pm

I love aquaria and I hate zoos. Zoos take animals out of their natural environment and place them in cages. Aquaria, while in some ways represent a somewhat similar concept, creates a miniature environment for each animal they display. Fail to achieve that habitat, and your prize animal dies …it is as simple as that. Zoos can (and regularly do) fail to do this, and the animal doesn’t die… it just exists in utter misery.

Expensive to create and maintain, but mesmerisingly worth it!

I visit aquaria whenever I find one, and I have visited many. I put together an evaluation sheet years ago, and have assessed seven aquaria in Asia here. Each aquarium is ranked against each other between one and seven; seven being the highest score, according to six categories. The scores are summarized in the table below.

HKG

BKK

JKT

SHG

KUL

BEI

PHU

Layout and design

4

7

2

6

5

3

1

Appropriateness of displays to species 5 7 1 6

3

4

2

Variety of exhibits 4 7 3 6

5

2

1

Special exhibits / themes 4 7 3 5

2

6

1

Interpretation 5 7 2 6

4

3

1

Merchandising 7 6 2 4

5

3

1

29 41 13 33

24

21

7

BKK= Bangkok, PHU=Phuket, JKT=Jakarta, KUL=Kuala Lumpur, BEI=Beijing, HKG=Hong Kong, SHG=Shanghai

Siam Oceanworld in Bangkok wins hands down, with Shanghai’s Ocean Aquarium coming in 2nd.  Hongkong’s Ocean Park comes in 3rd, despite scoring comparatively low according to its real worth, only because it is not only a stand-alone aquarium, but is an integrated theme park. One key aquarium remains to be assessed… Singapore’s Sentosa island Aquarium, self-claimed to be the best round these parts. I shall visit one day…

Layout and design of the Aquarium

(Size of the facility, design of the facility, visitor movement, tank sizes and variety)

Wow factor, combined with visitor comfort

The design of the building is an important part of creating a visual journey through all the exhibits. Some aquaria, like the Beijing Aquarium, are large stand-alone buildings, while others are smaller facilities attached to a marine research facility such as the Phuket aquarium, yet others are within shopping malls like the Bangkok aquarium located within Siam Paragon mall, or Kuala Lumpur aquarium in the basement under the Twin Towers.

The location of tanks, and how visitors are moved through the facility, is assessed according to connectivity of exhibits and ease of passage.

The Bangkok aquarium stands above the rest in terms of design of the facility, despite several others being much larger buildings. Hong Kong aquarium comes second, with its most creative movement of visitors, including its 3-storied spirally-descending walkway around the main large circular display tank.

The Beijing aquarium has categorized their exhibits, marine, corals, mammals etc etc, because they have the luxury of a huge area. Unfortunately did not maximize this with the variety of exhibits they could’ve had.

Appropriateness of display tanks to species

(number of animals within a tank, relative to space and size of animal)

Overstocking in Shanghai aquarium

While entertainment and education may be the prime objective of aquaria, animal health and welfare is equally important. Over-crowding in tanks, or animals confined to too small displays is not good, and sends the wrong message to visitors. Matching the viewability of animals and their health is a key challenge in modern aquaria. The Dugong in Jakarta was a fantastic exhibit, but it is within a tank far too small for an animal that size. Several aquaria have small-clawed otters, but none had enclosures that catered for the active and social nature of these mammals.

Bangkok aquarium again tops the list, with its relatively well-matched spaces to the species on display. Hong Kong comes in 2nd. Shanghai aquarium loses out, with massively over-stocked tanks… there were 9 green turtles in one tank, and at least 50 sea bass in the main tank…

Variety of exhibits

(number of species, number of exhibits, diversity of displays, number of individuals on display, static exhibitions, exchange programmes)

glass-bottomed boats take the visitor over the main tank

What species are on display at an aquarium makes for a better experience. How they are presented also brings home to the visitor the different aquatic habitats and environments that result in the world’s amazingly rich biological diversity. Freshwater and saltwater environments are contrastingly different, and present different challenges to aquaria to maintain. Phuket aquarium, despite its poor state of repair, has something other aquaria do not show… you can go around the back of the building to see how aquaria tank environments are controlled.. filtration systems, etc… well worth the walk around back to visit the other parts of the Marine Research Centre, including a visit to a marine research vessel at the end of the jetty… if its docked that day of course! Shanghai Aquarium also has a wide range of displays and exhibitions. Hong Kong ocean park has brilliant displays, including the sea lions, but has little variety, and therefore scores low.

Bangkok aquarium wins hands down for its variety of exhibits, and sheer diversity of species on display. Check out the giant atlantic crabs, penguins, otters… all with the best interpretation I’ve seen at any aquarium in Asia. Disappointingly, Beijing aquarium has little diversity in its displays.

Fossils in Shanghai

a Coelacanth in Jakarta

Special exhibits

(themes, special/flagship exhibits)

Every aquarium needs a feature exhibit, rare or endangered species

We cannot deny the attractiveness of a key exhibit or species – every aquarium needs a star attraction, its highlight for visitors. There are no clear winners here, although I am inclined to give the award to Beijing for having two star attractions – the huge Chinese Sturgeon display, and the pair of Beluga whales. Hongkong comes second, with probably the best presentation of jellyfish in the world, a truly enchanting experience complete with Bang-Olafsen delivered music. Jakarta has a dugong, its only attraction, while Bangkok has one of the best collections of sea horses in Asia, and a giant shark tank with nurse sharks and leopard sharks.

Interpretation

(in-tank interpretation, posters, information on species, interactivity with audience, targeted interpretation to age-groups, feeding times, video presentations, touch-screens, guided touching pools)

Simple, succinct, informative, interesting

Spending a few hours at an aquarium is made meaningful if you leave having learnt something about what you’ve seen, and are taking home some knowledge you didn’t have before you entered that aquarium. Interpretation makes aquaria educational and entertaining places to visit. Remove interpretation and you lose the very objective of running aquaria! Language is your means of transferring information, and correct language is very important. As an English speaker (and reader), obviously those aquaria with English interpretation had the most impact upon me… Beijing aquarium left me clueless as to what I was looking at most of the time, though it probably focussed on a 90% local audience. Bangkok and Hong Kong aquaria are the best, with Bangkok winning with its creative interpretation.

Merchandising

(availability of outlets, variety of merchadising, conservation messages, branding-related, pricing, target-audiences)

We all like to take something home as a memento of the places we’ve visited, and all aquaria cater to this seemingly irresistible desire. The shopping area is always at the end of your visit, all visitors are cleverly shepherded through the shops as you exit the aquarium… except for Beijing aquarium, which is so large that merchandising and restaurants are all over the building. Hong Kong aquaria had the best merchandising. Kuala Lumpur has a Bodyshop outlet within the aquarium, but it doesn’t sell any related merchandise.

————

Shanghai Ocean Aquarium

www.sh-soa.com

Nestled at the foot of Shanghai’s majestic Pearl Tower, this is a modern facility and very well designed. It has surprisingly large floor space dedicated to still exhibitions on aquatic animals, fossils and conservation projects and issues in China. The large exhibition on shark-finning is laudable, and much needed in the world’s largest consuming market for shark fins. This is one of the better designed layouts I’ve seen, and the building is spanking new and shining! Audio guides in English are available.

HIGHS: Fossil displays are fantastic, and the conservation messages are well presented throughout the facility. Good interpretation and reasonable diversity of species exhibited. The static exhibition on China’s efforts to save the baiji or Yangtze white river dolphin) is good. Don’t’ forget to check out the giant salamanders!

LOWS: in typical over-achieving Chinese style, many of the tanks are seriously overstocked with fish. In the main tank, I counted 9 green turtles, and so many rays the essence of recreating a coral reef was lost.

Phuket Aquarium

www.phuketaquarium.org

Part of the Phuket Marine Biological Centre (PMBC), Thailand’s premier marine research and conservation facility. The focus of PMBC on marine research is reflected in the quality of its aquarium. The visitor feels this is very much a display of species, rather than creating a visually exciting experience that many other aquaria achieve. This is a great facility for students and interested persons to learn about what PMBC is doing in Thailand, and the elements of research.

HIGHS: the PMBC facility is much more attractive than the aquarium itself, taking the visitor on a tour along its 8ha beachfront property. A visit to the moored research vessel is very good. I liked the models and simulations of the tsunami.

LOWS: there is a distinct lack of staff presence, and the visitor is on his own, especially around the back, where interpretation and contact with researchers would greatly improve the visitor experience and learning. The exhibits inside the aquarium are sparsely stocked, dimly lit and nothing really exciting greets visitors.

Aquaria KLCC Kuala Lumpur

www.aquariaklcc.com


Integrated into the iconic Twin Towers of Kuala Lumpur, this aquarium is ideally situated within a busy shopping area, thus maximizing visitorship. This is a small facility constructed in the basement, compared to the vast space available amidst the KLCC compound. Sadly, this aquarium doesn’t meet its full potential, given its resources and its fantastic location. Its exhibition on Endau Rompin, a forest ecosystem under peril, is good, but misplaced here. Aquaria should focus on being aquariums first!

HIGHS: touching-tanks are very good, and a real hit with all visitors.

LOWS: the space is cramped, with too many small exhibits too close together, thus diminishing the visitor experience. Many of the exhibits are not aquatic animals, such as spiders, tarantulas, lizards and snakes… keep focus!

Seaworld Indonesia, Jakarta

www.seaworldindonesia.com

Located along the waterfront of old Jakarta, one travels through old Batavia to get here. The aquarium is situated within a larger theme park, and is not a very large facility, and a bit worse for wear. The exhibits are old and weary, and diminishes the visitor experience.

HIGHS: a single dugong has to be its claim to fame. There is a preserved Coelacanth, which is worth viewing.

LOWS: The dugong display is far too small for the poor animal. Interpretation is extremely poor.

Siam Oceanworld, Bangkok

www.siamoceanworld.co.th


Taking two basement floors within one of Bangkok’s prime shopping malls (the Siam Paragon), this is perhaps Asia’s top aquarium. It has a huge diversity of species exhibited, freshwater and marine, including polar exhibits. Its design is very good, guiding the visitor through very viewable displays. Its main claim to fame has to be the creativity in interpretation. No aquarium came close to the depth and quality of its interpretation, and its wonderful ability to keep the audience constantly captiviated.

HIGHS: leopard sharks are a must see, and it has glass-bottomed boats that take you into the huge main tank. Check out the sea horses – most exquisite, and the giant crabs were amazing. There are several tongue-in-cheek displays sponsored by companies… a car aquarium, and microwave exhibit…

There is a section just before the exit displays preserved specimens of new species to science, and some yet-to-be-identified aquatic animals. Don’t miss the giant blue-fin tuna kept in a block of ice.

LOWS: the only criticism I would state would be the matching of viewing space to the exhibits. Some exhibits need space to truly appreciate the splendour of the creatures in their natural habitat, and this is obviously a premium within a shopping mall. More seating areas are needed for those tired legs, especially when people like me spend 4hrs there… and I’ve been there 3 times!

Ocean Park, Hong Kong

www.oceanpark.com.hk

This aquarium is not a single building, but spread out across a massive theme park on a promontory. This is a full day experience for families, with roller-coasters, panda bears and almost everything that would make your heart stop. Expect to walk huge distances, though the escalators make the steep climbs a breeze.The aquatic exhibits are placed far apart, with the sealions at the very peak of the promontory. The Chinese sturgeon exhibit was closed when I visited… the one exhibit I really wanted to see! Sigh… anyways, I got to see them in all their prehistoric splendour in Shanghai.

HIGHS: The jellyfish exhibit has to be one of the best in the world, complete with Bang Olafsen driven music – a must see! The dolphin shows are spectacular, but shows are fixed-timed… I hear there are killer whales too.

LOWS: Surprisingly for intellectual Hong Kong, interpretation was good, but not what it could have been. And distances between exhibits are tiresome, so don’t come here just to visit an aquarium… go drop yourself 100m from the sky!

Beijing Aquarium
Located within the Beijing Zoo, this is reputedly the world’s largest inland aquarium. Big it is, and big empty spaces are also a feature. For aquaria, big is not always better, especially when your roof stretches 4-stories high and you don’t use the space.This is the only aquarium I’ve visited where merchandising is everywhere, and restaurants and kiosks are spread around… of course it is, there’s all this space to fill up. It’s a real carnival atmosphere inside.

HIGHS: Two Beluga whales take the cake, I loved it. But the aquarium’s highlight is the giant Chinese Sturgeon display, with 3m specimens. Almost extinct in the wild, it is indeed an honour to witness these ancient creatures swimming..

LOWS: poor species variety, with many of the large display tanks without anything in them. Interpretation in any language was virtually absent.

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