Prior to becoming a diver, there were few things in life I loved more than visiting an aquarium. I’ve written extensively on this site about my love of the water in general, as well as my love for aquariums in particular, but part of me wondered whether—having finally experienced the wonder of the aquatic world without reinforced panes of glass between it and me—my love affair with aquariums might wane.
I had the chance to find out while we were in Singapore. Despite its small size, the country boasts not one, but TWO aquariums: Underwater World and the S.E.A Aquarium. As if that weren’t enough competition for you, both are located on Sentosa, an island that features a resort, several hotels and golf courses, tons of restaurants, a Universal Studios theme park, a water-park, and plenty of other activities and diversions.
Undoubtedly it would have been fun for us to visit both so that I could deliver judgment as to which of the two deserves the crown of Singapore’s Next Top Aquarium. However, with tickets to Underwater World and S.E.A. each going for S$30 a pop (incredibly, it looks like S.E.A. has raised its prices and now charges S$38!), purchasing tickets to both would have been utter madness. I like an aquarium as much as the next person—possibly even more—but clearly a choice would have to be made.
Although Underwater World boasts the opportunity for swimming with dolphins or diving with sharks, we both agreed that we’d much rather come across those opportunities organically in the wild. On the other hand, finding the “aquarium” moniker lacking, the S.E.A. actually bills itself as an oceanarium. It just so happens to also be the largest oceanarium on the planet. (I think it might be the only oceanarium and therefore win that title by default, but that’s neither here nor there.) Opening its doors for the first time just weeks before our arrival in Singapore, we took it as a sign that the S.E.A. was the aquatic wonderland we were meant to visit.
To reach Sentosa, we made our way to the harbor front where we then had four choices at our disposal as to how to actually get across to the island: walk, take a boat, take a monorail, or take in the sights from above in a cable car. Initially I really wanted to take the cable cars (which, for some reason were all Angry Bird themed… complete with the music playing on loop and everything), but tickets were insanely expensive, especially because you had to pay for a round-trip ticket, the cheapest of which was S$29. Once we got over the sticker shock, we decided that walking would be perfectly fine for us! In the end, this wasn’t a bad choice at all as the weather was good, the walk was pretty, we still got some nice views of Sentosa, and we only had to pay S$1 to enter the island this way. Given that it only took us about 10 minutes to walk the length of the boardwalk to the island, it’s actually kind of crazy that there are so many transport options on offer.
As an aside, for those of you wondering whether Sentosa is worth visiting if you do not wish to visit the S.E.A., if you have ever been to Centre Island or Ontario Place in Toronto, or if you can imagine Orlando, FL conscribed to an island, then you have some sense of what Sentosa is like. It’s pretty much a big area filled with expensive attractions that seem largely geared towards families with younger children. The only thing that really appealed to us was (surprise, surprise) the Malaysian “food street” building, which was nicely designed and had food that wasn’t too horribly overpriced. We indulged in a butter puff pastry filled with kaya jam (coconut mixed with pandan) as well as an ice kacang, a shaved ice dessert laden with toppings including a sugary sweet syrup the flavor of root beer, red beans, and even a dollop of creamed corn! Tony didn’t care for that last random addition, but as someone who has enjoyed delicious Mexican popsicles flecked with corn, I thought it kind of worked!
Browsing the S.E.A. website, I see that there is an option to pre-purchase your tickets online. I would heartily recommend that you do this. Maybe it’s because it was the holiday season or because were there on a weekend or because the oceanarium had just opened up weeks earlier but the wait to get into the place was BANANAS. We met up with our new friends Edna & Mike before braving the crowds which certainly helped us while away the time, but it still took us 90 minutes for the line to snake its way into the building. As the world’s largest oceanarium, I’m sure you can guess that the S.E.A. is pretty big, so although we passed the time pleasantly, I’m sure we all would have rather spent it actually inside rather than in line.
After all the buildup, it’s perhaps not all too surprising that my first impression of the S.E.A. was that of being both under and overwhelmed. It was evident straight away that the S.E.A. was designed to impress—everything felt extremely fancy, and clearly a lot of time, effort and money had been spent on this project. But there were just so many people buzzing about me that I had an extremely hard time blissing out in my usual zen aquarium mode.
With time, however, I was slowly able to slip into a more tranquil space and let the hypnotic undulations of the creatures in their tanks work their magic on me. As I let quietude wash over me, I found myself better able to appreciate the sleek and ultra-modern design of the S.E.A. While it had been immediately apparent to me that the S.E.A. was meant to herald a new age of aquaria, it wasn’t until I was really drinking in the beautiful, mystifying creatures the place was celebrating that the futuristic, space-age design really took hold of me. You see, as a diver, the sights I’ve encountered beneath the waves are so magnificent, so bizarre, so utterly unlike the world I know on land that the act of diving feels like nothing so much as visiting a completely different planet. I have never had a great fascination with space, nor any desire to one day find myself floating amongst the stars or navigating the milky way, but I think that for me, diving ultimately taps into that same sense of adventure, the possibility for boundless exploration. All this to say that the posh spaceship vibe of the S.E.A. actually really works.
Like the best aquariums, the S.E.A. follows a linear structure that naturally guides its visitors from tank to tank—a particularly good strategy here because there are so many fish and so many tanks that it would be so easy to get lost. In that sense, I suppose the S.E.A. has achieved another level of verisimilitude with what it’s like to be underwater: any one who has ever tried to navigate out in the ocean knows just how easy it is to get disoriented (I say this without any trace of irony or judgment, as I happily swim in circles whenever I go snorkeling)! Although I felt that signage could have been a bit clearer marking one’s journey, tanks are clustered according to different geographical regions, funneling visitors through the nearby Straits of Melaka and the Andaman Sea, over into the Bay of Bengal, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, East Africa and a few other select swaths of the ocean. Given the efforts taken to represent so many different parts of the earth, there was an excellent assortment of marine life on display: along with my usual favorites like the seahorses and jellyfish, there were some really fabulous tanks featuring some more unusual offerings like the moray eel tank, the tanks with the oddly shaped fish such as puffers, box fish, and my personal favorite, the cow fish! They even had a tank with nautilus in it—it was pretty phenomenal getting to gaze upon one of the planet’s oldest living creatures!
Oddities aside, the S.E.A. really shines brightest right at the end as you walk through the Shark Seas, a Lucite tunnel where the ocean’s fiercest predators swim at you from all sides. I think I may have actually squealed when I spotted a scalloped hammerhead—they’re near the top of my list of creatures I’d like to spot on a dive, and although I haven’t had that pleasure yet, getting to see them here was still a wonderful treat.
Exiting the Shark Seas, you enter a huge auditorium and find yourself staring at a huge tank called Open Ocean, which is the length of a football field! To call this tank mesmerizing does not do it justice—watching a massive oceanic manta ray swoop and soar through the water with the grace of a ballerina while the aptly named leopard shark and guitarfish patrol the tank’s sandy shoals is exhilarating and humbling and pure perfection. Would I have loved to have had it all to myself? Sure, but standing in front of a tank that huge, the crowds pretty much faded from my consciousness as I lost myself in the beauty before me. In face of such majesty, all else falls away.
All this said, impressive and immaculate as the S.E.A. is, I never quite connected with it the way I was hoping to. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this was an example of something I respected far more than I liked, because I honestly did enjoy my time there and I do think that for an aquarium lover, it is probably the ultimate pilgrimage. I have no doubt as well that if we had visited not so close to its launch date and had it not been on the weekend or a holiday, I would likely have enjoyed myself all the more. At times the crowds really were stifling and on the verge of manic, which is the exact opposite of what I hope to experience when I visit an aquarium.
On the plus side, however, my visit to S.E.A. showed me that in a post-diving world, my love for aquariums is still alive and well. I felt great pleasure in spotting fish we had seen out in the wild, not just in gazing on the rare one we have yet to see on a dive. Through diving, Tony & I have developed a keen interest in actually being able to identify the creatures we encounter; while we still sometimes wind up referring to things like “the stripey spotted fish” or “the punk fish with the yellow cheek paint and the soft purple Mohawk”, we tend to race back to the reference books after our dives to try to find out their actual names. Now we can recognize trumpet fish, bat fish, Moorish idols, and many other fish on sight. As it turns out, actually knowing what you’re looking at makes the experience all the nicer. And because we have had the chance to encounter so many fish during our dives, we’ve also gotten a sense for which fish are common and which ones are more rare—we’ll never dive deep enough to see a nautilus in the wild and hammerheads are increasingly at risk, so on this visit, I was truly able to appreciate the chance to see them. It’s just another example of how diving has made my life richer: far from detracting from aquariums, diving has only enhanced and deepened my appreciation for them all the more.
“The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.” – Jacques Yves Cousteau