Saturday, August 28, 2010

Swept Away by the Sights of Manila Ocean Park

Are you intrigued by the life aquatic? Do you know what goes on down there in the unplumbed depths of the ocean? Are you looking forward to an intimate encounter with arapaimas, gouramis, electric eels, crabs, clownfish, barracudas, stingrays, sharks  and other exotic marine species found only in Philippine seas?
Well, here’s something fishy that’s gonna blow your mind, if you haven’t seen or heard about it yet. I’m referring to none other than the Manila Ocean Park (MOP), the Philippines’ first state-of-the-art living museum of the underwater world, located within a  gigantic complex right at the back of the Quirino Grandstand near Rizal Park.

Before flying home, I spent a few hours sweeping the secrets of the deep blue sea which are displayed at MOP. Since he’s been there on countless occasions, Juju, my host and buddy, just drove me to the place and waited patiently at one of the ocean park’s restaurants. And what did I discover during my solo under-the-sea exploration? What else, but a myriad of deep mysteries which have swept me off my feet!

In that brief visit, I got to witness firsthand the rarely seen life at the bottom of the ocean unfold before my eyes through its oceanarium, which features about 20,000 exotic marine creatures of about 300 species. Around 80 percent of these are said to be endemic or found only in Philippine waters. 

Inside the ocean park, I also had the chance to gad around the first marine-themed mall in the country, harboring some 30 different shops and 25 restaurants where visitors can enjoy gazing at Manila's world-famous sunset, and even dine al fresco. Recently, MOP opened its four-star boutique hotel named H20 Manila, which has something like 140 rooms.

But it’s the oceanarium that really took my breath away. Divided into seven unique underwater kingdoms or realms proudly bearing Filipino names, it showcases the diverse and enchanting habitats of the marine world. Stepping into each of these realms, I got ecstatic exploring the unchartered corners of the deep, surrounded by a profusion of awesome sea creatures—without getting myself soaked at all! 

Together with a motley crowd, I began my underwater eco-adventure by treading into a lush “rainforest” where water from an artificial waterfalls cascades into eight various water tanks, a simulation of the freshwater flow that leads to the open sea.

Known as Agos (Flow), this habitat underscores the vital link between land and sea. Each of the tanks there contains rare species of freshwater fish. Time seemed to stand still as I gazed at the exotic array of arapaimas (said to be the world’s largest freshwater fish), gouramis, arowanas, lungfish, albino cat fish, and other sea creatures like starfishes, sea cucumbers, hermit crabs, fire eels and bamboo sharks. 

Two of the water tanks there are filled with fishes thriving in brackish waters such as target fish, archerfish, silver moony (fingerfish), cichlids, etc. Meanwhile, the rocky shoreline is represented by the Dalampasigan (Seashore) pool where visitors can touch some of the creatures on display, particularly the live starfishes which children had a great time caressing. 

After Agos, I stepped into a dark place where the aquariums were built into the walls. Each of them had lighted plates describing the swimmers inside the glass-encased containers. This colorful yet intriguing realm of the marine world is called Bahura (Coral Reef) where sightseers can find common as well as rare species of fish and other coral reef inhabitants as displayed in 48 different tanks.

For a while, I really thought the corals in Bahura are authentic. To my surprise, they’re artificial! Still, I take my hat off to the fellows who fashioned them out of fiberglass. Also, I found one swimmer lurking at the corals inside the glass houses which I’ve been wanting to see up close and personal—who else but Nemo! Geez, the teeny-weeny is truly an eye-catching swimmer just like in the movie. And I’m glad he’s reunited with his clownfish family, at least at the ocean park.

Incidentally, the Philippines happens to be one of the countries that constitute the so-called Coral Triangle, a geographical term referring to the global epicenter of marine biodiversity. Perhaps because of this, there’s a blurb claiming that the country is the center of marine fish biodiversity in the world. Some kind of fish story? Not really. Fact is, there’s a study by American biologists corroborating such claim.

And here’s more: we’re also the home of the most diverse marine ecosystem in the planet! Crab, eel, seahorse, pufferfish, sergeant fish, regal tang fish, damselfish, porcupinefish, rabbitfish, cowfish, lionfish, angelfish, stonefish—name it, our seas teem with it, and most of them are showcased at Bahura 

Still dazed and dazzled by my experience at the coral reefs, I moved on to another realm and discovered the various fauna residing at Laot (Fishing Ground). Bathed in mystery, the eerie darkness that envelops the underwater world is recreated in this almost pitch black habitat. Only the light coming from four floor-to-ceiling aquariums illuminates the entire area.

Inside the gigantic, thick glass houses, I noticed some replicas of shipwrecks, subterranean caves, and other artifacts scattered all over, simulating the natural milieu under the sea. Going around Laot, I was treated to a radiant display of colorful fishes, some of which are sold in local wet markets like the giant groupers we fondly call lapu-lapu. Definitely a sight to behold!

In that poorly lit realm, I had difficulty getting clear snaps. Flash photography is prohibited inside MOP as it disturbs the creatures but some visitors blatantly violated the rule just to get good shots. The fact that no staff of the ocean park called their attention must have emboldened the violators to keep on doing their thing.

From Laot, I segued into the realm of Buhay na Karagatan (The Living Ocean) which provides visitors with a breathtaking extravaganza of the life aquatic. Watching the striking visuals in that part of the oceanarium left me tongue-tied. To say that it’s amazing would be an understatement.

Most of the crowd, young and old alike, gravitated towards this section because it showcases one of MOP’s main attractions —a 25-meter underwater tunnel with 220-degree curved acrylic walls resembling that of Singapore’s Underwater World. Ours, however, is quite short compared to the one at Sentosa which stretches 83 meters and boasts of a travelator that moves visitors around as they gaze at the marine creatures.  

As its name suggests, Buhay na Karagatan teems with color, vibrancy and excitement as schools of multi-colored fishes, sponges, stingrays, and even sharks wander in synchronized movements around and above your head. The few minutes I spent gazing at the mind-boggling richness of the ocean turned out to be both pleasurable and therapeutic. It’s probably the closest thing that we humans can get to hang around with such a great array of swimmers without getting ourselves wet.

Still mesmerized by the diversity of wonders I saw at the living ocean, I continued with my eco-journey and took the plunge into the mysterious kingdom known as Ang Kalaliman (The Deep). There, I had a close encounter with one of the sleekest residents of that part of the ocean — the barracuda. Known as the “tiger of the sea”, it’s a cold-blooded killer whose fierce-looking stance and dagger-like teeth make it one of the most dreaded inhabitants of the deep.

From Ang Kalaliman, I went to the kingdom of Pagi (Stingrays). There, I was struck with wonder as different species of rays swam above me while I stood beneath their overhang tank. Said to be distant relatives of sharks, rays are docile creatures, rarely inflicting serious harm on humans. If provoked, however, they can be dangerous, swinging their tails with enough force to tear flesh and, at the same time, unleash venom. 

Pinoy superstition has it that a stingray’s tail called buntot pagi can be used to ward off ghosts, ghouls, witches and other malevolent creatures of the night. It’s a lethal weapon because the toxin lingers even as the tail itself has dried. This makes buntot pagi a prized possession that you can use against your enemies because of the excruciating pain it can inflict on them. Hmmm…maybe I should keep one tail…just in case. LOL!

After spending some bedazzling moments with the rays, I reached the realm of their cousins: Pating (Shark). No oceanarium, I supposed, would be complete without these renowned predators of the deep. The ones I saw inside the tank, however, are still little. Viewed from behind the acrylic glass house, they seemed harmless and cuddly. But years of reading Peter Benchley and company’s paperbacks and seeing their film versions have taught me to be wary of sharks, especially the savage man-eating great white one.

Snapping at  the  different  types of sharks—leopard, tiger, sand tiger  and zebra—swimming inside the tank, I wondered where MOP would put them once they mature into giant predators, if they live. Would they release them into Manila Bay and stir pandemonium similar to what the great white shark caused in “Jaws”? Now, that’s one publicity stunt that would surely make great waves for the ocean park! LOL!

Aside from the awe-inspiring views of the underwater world, there are some extras awaiting those who linger at MOP. These include the fish spa and the glass bottom boat ride. At the former, visitors can dip their tired feet into the water where an assortment of doctor fishes will nibble away rough, dead skin cells, bringing back the glow and smoothness of their feet. Meanwhile, the latter treats them to a wonderful view of some sea creatures found in Buhay na Karagatan literally swimming under their feet!  

The ocean park also has a musical show entitled “Mermaids in Manila”, which features lovely mermaids in colorful costumes swimming and spinning with all the sea creatures in an aquarium. Unfortunately, I passed up the chance to enjoy these additional treats but surely, they’re going to be part of my itinerary next time. 

With these numerous spectacles relatively within any tourist’s reach, non-swimmers and non-divers alike can now enjoy the thrill of watching the abundance of marine life in this part of the world, without having to dive into the mysterious depths of the sea. 

By taking the plunge into the ocean park, any visitor also gets to escape the social realities—congestion, crime, curtailment, corruption—that are plaguing the nation’s capital and elsewhere. Sometimes it feels wonderful to be shielded from these and lulled into an imaginary state of bliss…even for an hour or two. :D

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