Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Hong Kong II: Ocean Park

We arrived at Ocean Park around midmorning, the sun already high in the nearly cloudless sky. Although Hong Kong also boasts a Disney Land, a zoo, and several other smaller theme park attractions, Ocean Park (香港海洋公園) is by far the area's most popular. In fact, according to Wikipedia, Ocean Park was ranked seven in 'The World’s Most Popular Amusement Parks’ by Forbes last year. Featuring roller coasters, water rides, a jelly fish and shark aquarium, a dolphin amphitheatre, a hot air balloon, a mountainside gondola system, the world's second-longest outdoor escalator, and, most importantly, a Giant panda exhibit, Ocean Park sounded too good to be true, and we were determined to see it all.

The sign that greeted us.

We entered the park to the sound of carnival music and found our way to the first intersection, where the brightly colored sign you see above informed us of the various attractions to be found in this quadrant of the park. I was excited to find that we had apparently wandered into Ocean Park's Wet 'n' Wild Panda Mania -- I had come to see pandas, and the panda frenzy had already begun!

There were even panda-themed flower baskets.

Everything was pandas... panda flags, panda trashcans, panda fans, panda fences, and -- best of all -- a gigantic panda-themed foam party, complete with panda slides, a panda pit, and a giant bubble-blowing bamboo shoot.

Bambooistic Foam Party!!

More foam.

(In the two picures above, I am the one in the yellow dress, Chris (from the University of North Carolina) is the one in the green shirt, and Manuel (from the University of Hawaii at Hilo) is the one in the white shirt.)

The aforementioned panda pit of foam.

The foam party was tempting, but we had too much left to see and didn't want to see it covered in soapy residue. After frolicing in the foam bubbles for a while (I got foam on my sunglasses and shoulder), we decided to move on to some of the other attractions.

I rode on a scary ride.

The first ride we rode was one of those spinning rides that uses the centripetal force created by acceleration along a circular path to smoosh people against the ride and then flip them around and around and upside down without actually needing to buckle them in. I was scared, but prevailed. We were all really dizzy when we got off.

At the bottom of the log flume!

Undeterred, we pressed on, lining up straightaway for the next ride. We were all desperately sweaty -- the temperature was well over 100*F on that day in Hong Kong -- and were excited by the sparkly water of the log flume ride. I opted not to ride, and instead bought drinks and held everyone's bags as they got soaked.

The drenched survivors.
From left to right: Manuel, Kevin, Sheila, Chris.

They got pretty wet... making me even happier I didn't go on in my pretty yellow dress! I had iced tea to keep me cool, and was eager to move along on the winding trail of adventures that would bring us to the pandas.

The views of the bay were stunning.

We moved further up the mountain by using the next portion of Ocean Park's giant outdoor escalator, which is apparently the second-longest in the world. I don't know which is the first-longest, but I would be willing to bet that the views there couldn't compare to the beautiful views this one afforded us of Victoria Harbour and the outlying islands of Hong Kong.

On the world's second-longest outdoor escalator.

We paused at a few scenic overlooks to take photographs of -- and simply gape at -- the scenery.

Me and Kevin with Hong Kong in the background.

Another look at Victoria Harbour...

...and one looking out to sea. The spherical spiral in the foreground is a roller coaster.

I just couldn't stop taking pictures, the views were so stunning. The water looks really blue here for some reason.

However, the sun soon got to be too much, and we were happy to explore the highest part of the park -- the Marine Level. Besides being an amusement park, Ocean Park is also home to several observatories and laboratories, in addition to an education department and a Whales And Dolphins Fund. There was a big amphitheatre with dolphin shows (at which we unfortunately could not find seats), and a four-story aquarium with the most heavenly air conditioning I have ever felt.

Baby sand shark in an incubator meant to mimic its actual growing environment.

The exhibits in the aquarium were really awesome as well, besides simply being (literally) cool. There was a deep-sea tank like the one in Boston, plus several exhibitions of the kinds of new experiements in marine biology that are being undertaken in some of the laboratories at Ocean Park. I also saw a kind of marine organism I have never seen before: the sea angel, a tiny, shell-less mollusk with feet that have evolved into what look like little angel wings, which beat serenly in the icy cold waters it calls home. I was entranced.

The cable cars looked like colorful crystal bubbles going up and down the mountain.

Of course, all good things come to an end, and before long we were back outside in the blistering heat. After another ride or so, and another round of beverages (including the oddest cream soda I have ever had -- tasted more like melon than anything else, and came in a green bottle), we were finally ready to find the pandas, located in the opposite end of the park, and reachable only by bus and cable car.

We were right at the edge of the island, where the mountains met the water.

You can guess which method of transportation we chose -- after a remarkably short wait, the five of us piled into a lovely glass globe dangling from a wire and were whisked off up and down and over the green slope down to the sea.

It got pretty steep in places, but the view of the island was incredible.

Finally, finally, we were almost at the Giant Panda Habitat at last. We had to wait on a pretty long time -- the pandas are one of the most popular exhibits of the park (understandably so!), and their indoor, climate-controlled habitat is strictly crowd-controlled to avoid over-stimulation.

Touchdown on the other side of the mountain -- you can see a character landscaped into the mountainside in the background.

Ocean Park is home to four Giant pandas. Two -- Jia Jia (佳佳) and An An (安安) -- were given to the park by the PRC government in 1997 to celebrate Hong Kong's reunification with the mainland. This was neither the first nor the last time China was to use "panda diplomacy" as a foreign affairs strategy. Last year, China tried to send some panda ambassadors (cunningly named Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, reminisent of the word tuanyuan, Chinese for "reunion") to Taiwan, but they were (perhaps understandably) rejected, much to the Taiwanese population's distress.

An An lolls about on his back.

All this political baggage, however, exists only in the world surrounding the pandas, and not in the world of the pandas themselves. Although Jia Jia and An An since 1999, as well as Ying Ying (盈盈) and Le Le (樂樂) since 2006, have also served as symbolic ambassadors from China, the bears themselves are hardly interested in the political idealogy they represent.

Jia Jia, true to her name, sleeps peacefully in the center of her pen.

That's why it was easy to forget about all the political machinations that had brought these bears together here, and simply enjoy watching them. No flash photography was allowed, so the pictures are somewhat blurry, but I think their cuteness still shines through!

Ying Ying, the little girl cub, was sleeping down in the corner.

You might notice that most of the pandas are sleeping here. This is really no surprise -- with a natural diet of 99% bamboo, Giant pandas lack the energy to run around all day. Still, these pandas keep busy. They even have their ownblog! Jing Jing writes in pink, Le Le in blue. I still think Tai Shan might be the most loved panda in the world, but the four pandas at Ocean Park are clearly surrounded by devoted keepers and admirers as well.

Le Le, the baby boy panda, was sleeping almost the whole time we were there!

One of the most interesting things I learned is that Giant pandas are "living fossils," meaning that they have no close living relatives, and are instead related to a species otherwise only known from fossils. With the attention and love seen here (and in DC!) we have good reason to hope that this biological lineage will indeed be preserved for generations to come.

Before long, the staff inside shuffled us through and back out into the sunshine to let other visitors see the pandas, which I guess was only fair. Kevin took a whole bunch of videos of the bears stretching and flopping around as they slept (including an adorable one of Ying Ying getting up, taking a step, and then flopping back down to sleep, flattening a large tuft of grass in the process), but I can't seem to post them.

Afterwards, we saw an exhibition of native dance.

We paused briefly on our way out to watch some dancers in colorful garb. I'm not sure what type of dance they were performing, but it was pretty. We couldn't stay for too long, though -- we had people to meet and more adventures to pursue back in the main city.