It’s kind of ironic that humans don’t have gills. People across all cultures love the ocean, find flowing water to be beautiful, and gaze upon swimming fish with a sense of serene tranquility. Adoring water is hard-wired into our DNA, but the aquatic world is pretty much cut off from us. You can strap on some scuba gear, but even then you’re only a guest in an inhospitable environment. I’ve never gone scuba diving, but my brother did it once. When I asked him what it was like he said, “It’s scarier than I thought it would be. You get down there and you think, ‘If something goes wrong with my gear, I’ll die.’ It makes you feel like you don’t belong down there.”
That presents aquarium designers with a difficult task. How do you bring humans closer to this hostile world that we so universally adore? Architects have developed a few clever tricks that can help viewers feel like they’re part of the aquatic world. They use wide viewing panels to cut off your peripheral vision and make you feel like you’re submerged, and they offer ray and shark petting pools so people can experience exotic fish hands-on. And then there’s my favorite: underwater tunnels.
What makes underwater tunnels so successful is that they give people a different perspective. We almost never view water that’s above us, so being able to see fish swim over our heads is an exhilarating, one-of-a-kind experience.
Tokyo’s Sunshine Aquarium takes the concept of underwater tunnels to a whole new level. Rather than take humans underwater, they lift sea creatures high above our heads. Sitting high atop an entertainment complex is a ring-shaped aquariums called the Aqua Ring. This see-through aquarium is tall enough for tourists to walk underneath of it, which offers an unprecedented look at the underside of sea lions, penguins, and other aquatic critters.
The flying penguin exhibit is actually a recent addition that has been attracting guests by the droves for the past several months. Penguins have free reign in the tank for about an hour starting at 6:30 PM each day up until September 2. For a flightless species of bird, being able to cruise through the Aqua Ring nine stories above the streets of Tokyo is the closest they’ll ever get to soaring among the clouds.
Fish lovers will be happy to hear that the Aqua Ring isn’t the building’s only aquarium. They’ve got full fish tanks in the lower levels and extensive habitats for the sea lions and penguins when they’re not swimming laps in the Aqua Ring. I’d be kind of worried for the sea lions if there weren’t — the Aqua Ring is cool and all, but it does look a little bit cramped.
You kind of have to wonder: what do the sea lions and the penguins think about the Aqua Ring? Is it terrifying? Exciting? Or do they even notice at all. Whatever the case, I hope that the penguins can appreciate all of the money that was invested into this exhibit. Without doubt, these are the highest flying penguins in history.