The ocean is an awesomely big place with sea life that can make humans seem truly tiny by comparison. But unless you are an avid scuba diver, you probably are missing out on much of the ocean’s beauty and true scale.
Well, no need to sign up for a PADI course. The Kuroshio Sea Tank at the Churaumi Aquarium on Okinawa may be the closest you can get to majestic ocean landscapes and giant sea creatures without strapping on oxygen.
The aquarium’s big attraction — the whopping 264,000-cubic-foot aquarium — has one of the largest viewing windows in the world and allows visitors to virtually stand on the sea floor as whale sharks, giant manta rays and schools of tuna glide gracefully nearby.
The spotted whale sharks are the stars. Growing nearly as big as humpback whales, they dwarf the visitors who line up along the 2-foot-thick tank window below.
In all, the tank is home to 70 species of fish swimming together, which might be an unlikely sight even in the open ocean.
For those who want to savor that atmosphere, the aquarium has a café with tables along the Kuroshio Sea Tank windows, so visitors can sip coffee and chitchat while staying close to the sharks and rays.
Must-sees also include dangerous Okinawa sea life such as the crown-of-thorns starfish and a dugong exhibit that houses four of the manatee-like sea mammals. The mammals are unique to Okinawa and have recently gained international attention due to the environmental controversy over relocating a Marine Corps air station to a coastal area on the island.
Elsewhere in the aquarium, there are exhibits of live, deep-sea fish as well as some preserved curiosities such as the head of a basking shark and a mounted oar fish.
Overall, the aquarium is one of the top tourist attractions on the island for good reason. The Kuroshio tank alone is a difficult experience to match, and Churaumi has plenty more to entertain servicemembers and their families.
The drive to Churaumi takes about an hour and 15 minutes from southern Okinawa. Parking is free.