A short walk from Shimonoseki’s famous Karato Market along the Straits of Kanmon, is the Shimonoseki Marine Science Museum Kaikyokan (Sea Aquarium). From the wonders of high-speed penguins — and there are oh so many penguins — to the re-creation of the natural habitat thriving below in the straits, to the performing sea lion and dolphins, this aquarium has something fun and educational for all ages.
Once I navigated my way into the building, I was faced with a choice — head up to the open air sections, or head down to get face-to-face with life below the surface. After some thought, I chose the low road, descending into the depths of the building. The dimming lights gave a sense that I was entering another world. Jumping off the automated stairs and turning the corner, a huge, brightly-lit enclosure full of enormous penguins greeted me.
I was a little shocked when some of these amazing creatures noticed me and waddled over to the glass for some attention. Drawn into the social situation, I found myself up close to the glass trying not to accidently bump, tap or make any noise. I became lost in the moment, caught up in our wordless communication. What next? Standing up, I took in the entire scene of the penguin village on the rocky ledge and encircling pool.
Discovering a passage leading down to the right, I followed the gently sloping path only to realize that all the exciting action was really happening below the water. Penguins, even giant ones, are cute, but when they leap into the water — wow — these guys are masters of their domain. One fellow bounced off the underside of the artificial rock in a high-speed collision, but seemingly unphased, recovered quickly, and raced toward the surface, only to fly through the air and land next to friends.
When I first saw these birds, their size and orange markings fooled me into thinking I was looking at Emperor Penguins. Nope, I learned that the colony was made of King Penguins — their regal airs had fooled me. Moving on, outside in the open air enclosures, a band of Humboldt Penguins lazed about with mates, or wiled away time alone in hideaways. I wondered what was going through their minds.
While I hadn’t come to see the performing dolphins, I happened to be passing by just at the right time, so I decided to sit in on the show. Surrounded by children and seniors, the show had the audience in fits of laughs and gasps as the finned mammals jumped and splashed in front of the oceanic backdrop. As freight ships passed by in the distance, the performance continued, with a sea lion making a guest appearance to the delight of the young ones.
After the sunny outdoor arena, I headed back indoors.
Following the aquarium’s prescribed route, I next encountered a large sea turtle swimming into the corner of its tank, as if welcoming visitors to what for me was the most impressive display following the King Penguins — a simulation of the Straits of Kanmon (the sea separating Japan’s main island of Honshu from Kyushu). The water teemed with sea life. Walking through an arched tunnel, a shoal of sardines spiraled round overhead in mesmerizing flashes of silver. Further on, huge and tiny jellyfish appeared seemingly luminous under the fluorescent lights.
A small crowd had assembled as I moved to the next room, they were looking at a solitary giant, a sunfish, paddled in circles around its tank, his shape and movement entrancing the children in particular.
In the next room I found myself amazed at just how many species of blowfish existed — I later counted 100 species on the aquarium website! The fish is a local delicacy in Yamaguchi, and could hear couples making future dinner plans as they too marveled at the varieties on display.
Despite countless numbers of curious and brightly colored fish, the biggest crowds were once again gathered for the seal show. Although, the neighboring snub-nosed finless porpoises gliding effortlessly around in laps, brushing within centimeters of the glass with each turn, kept stealing the audience’s attention. While everyone enjoyed the performance, I hoped they were, like I was, inspired by the diversity and magnificence of these creatures to go and see them in their natural habitat.
Descending on the final elevator toward the exit, everything was put back into perspective. A pristine blue whale skeleton bridged the space between the aquarium’s inner sanctum and the open space outside. I walked out to gaze at the straits connecting Japan to the rest of the world — straights teeming with unseen life just below the surface.
Photographs by Steve Jarvis & Text by Julian Littler