Ocean Park, a whimsical wonderland
13 May 2009
The Jakarta Post
If Hong Kong is one of the destinations at the top of your priority list, then Ocean Park is a recommended, must-see attraction.
The premier park in Hong Kong offers a mix of entertainment, educational and conversational facilities. There are over 40 major attractions in the park, something for everyone, regardless of age. And from the estimated of over three millions visitors each year, the 28-year-old, 870,000-square-meter park is set to continue making its mark for many years to come.
The park was built from donations made by the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club and is operated by Ocean Park Corporation, a statutory board and a non-profit organization offering affordable marine animal education and entertainment. The park lies between Aberdeen and Repulse Bay and comprises two sections: the Lowland in the Lowland Gardens, where the main entrance is, and the Headland at the Marine land.
In the Lowland is the Giant Panda Habitat, arguably the premier draw for Ocean Park since its opening on May 18, 1999, with an area of 2,000 square meters. After all, how many parks offer the chance to witness, live, one of the most endangered species in the world?
The state-of-the-art enclosure is a huge room, with a towering ceiling. It consists of three levels of guardrails for people to stand along and is especially designed to mimic the real-life habitat of the remote, mountainous region of Southern China. The enclosure is appropriately 30 degrees, steeply sloped, and even has misting equipment installed to keep the humidity up and air cool, to emulate the high altitude environment. The two stars of the attraction, pandas Gia-Gia and An-An by name, are a 22-year-old mother of four cubs and a 14-year-old male, respectively. They were a gift bestowed by the central government of China to the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong.
Amid clumps of vegetation, one of the two pandas was sighted half-heartedly munching great armfuls of cut bamboo, their diet of choice. Then, as if sensing an audience, Gia-Gia or An-An - I could not tell the difference - walked, sometimes rolled, on the grass, its nose poking curiously into nooks and crannies. The other panda was assumed to be sleeping behind the strategically placed rocks, some of which are faux.
There is also the Goldfish Pagoda, with 100 varieties of Chinese and Japanese goldfish of all shapes, sizes and colors; the Butterfly House, with hundreds of delicate free-flying insects; the Dinosaur Trail with its 17 life-like dinosaur models including a giant T-Rex near the exit; The Dolphin University, Caverns and Darkness 3D and the Amazing Amazon. The Lowland is also geared toward the young ones in Kids' World, which includes kiddy rides, playgrounds, remote-control cars and boats, and a shooting game arcade.
To cross over to the Headland, one must take the 1.5 km long cable car, one of the park's many popular highlights. The eight-minute ride transports visitors to and fro between the two sections, passing over mountains and offering a spectacular panoramic view of the rocky coastline of the southern part of Hong Kong Island and the South China Sea. It is amazing that it could be so quiet and peaceful up in the cable car. The sight of the lush, verdant hills below and the sea, spreading undulatingly across the endless horizon like a thin sheet of glass under the glaring sun, also creates valuable opportunities to take scenic photographs.
Upon entering the Atoll Reef, one of the world's largest aquariums and the most popular attraction of Marine Land, one is mesmerized by the splendor of the mysterious beautiful underwater world that unfolds in front of visitors. The Reef is a three-pier aquarium with observation passageway at different depths and angles for various views. It exhibits more than 2,000 fish from 250 species, including an 80-year-old, six foot long giant grouper! It also boasts the largest number of Napoleon fish to be found in any aquarium in the world.
A short travelator, Asia's first underwater viewing tunnel, takes visitors down under the arch-bottom of the Shark Aquarium tank, of which the smaller size certainly lacks none of the Reef's grandeur. It is the place to come face-to-face with more than 70 sharks and rays from over 35 species. It is thrilling as the impressively streamlined-body of a shark, about four meters long, slithered past on my left side, with the specially designed glass as the only barrier between us. Among these sharks, over 11 splendid species are especially cared for through Ocean Park's very own captive breeding program, including the black tip reef shark and the rare pygmy swell shark.
One should not miss the Ocean Theater, which features live shows by talented dolphins and sea lions. Music rocked through loudspeakers and a female DJ welcomed the audience. It was heartening to watch the sea lions jumping up and down the platforms, their wet flippers hanging over at their sides. The sea lions were so impressive when they balanced the balls using only the tips of their noses. They were rightfully rewarded for their efforts with fish thrown to them by their trainers, and hearty applause from the audience.
A trainer threw several life preservers into the training pool, which was separated from the audience by a low fence of clear transparent plastic panels. The dolphins raced against one another to dive expertly under the water before rising out with the life preservers secured around their necks. The audience sat on higher ground around the half-circular concrete staircase, to prevent being splashed by water over the plastic panels.
The Headland has many adult rides too, and these are definitely not for the faint-hearted. Some rides are restricted to riders standing at 1.5m and above, for safety reasons. Thrill-seekers will have their appetite more than satisfied by the park's offerings. The Dragon roller coaster is highly recommended. It sets the pulse running and adrenaline pumping with flips through its famous twists and loops, including two 360 degrees somersaults - one small and one giant, at a hurricane speed of 77km per hour, covering a total length of 842 meters in just 2.5 minutes. It is the ride of a lifetime and will leave the rider breathless, screaming for more!
Lastly there are the Abyss turbo drop and Crazy Galleon. The latter is a 26-meter-long pirate ship, which, in full swing, can reach up to a height of 20 meters. It gives the impression as if you are falling from a great height, your heart being "sucked down" by gravity. The Abyss uses the same trick, leaving riders feeling glad to have their feet back on the ground.
If you speculate that Hong Kong Disneyland, which opened to the world on Sept. 12, 2005, will soon surpass Ocean Park, think again. A redevelopment master plan is under way to fully refurbish Ocean Park. This aims to turn it into the world's best marine-based park, a world-class, must-see destination that is bound to give Disneyland a run for its money.
In the next few years, some HK$5.55 billion will be spent on installing 100 new rides and doubling the number of current attractions, including a funicular train for transportation from the Waterfront (formerly the Lowland) to the Summit (formerly the Headland). It will also introduce several new animal shows and even an area featuring polar bears. The park will expand to almost twice its present size. To accommodate growing visitors, there will also be a South Island Line to link the current subway system with Ocean Park and the south of Hong Kong Island.
Only time will tell which will emerge the winner, but with so much promise yet to come, it looks like Ocean Park is here to stay.