Yehliu Geopark, on Taiwan’s north coast near Keelung City, has long been one of the top tourist draws on this island. Up to three million visitors a year can’t be wrong; the park’s unique rock formations and unrivaled scenery make it a place well worth visiting. Another part of the Yehliu experience is Yehliu Ocean World, an oceanarium both educational and entertaining.
Text: Joe Henley; Photos: Maggie Song
Taking up a thin spit of land projecting out into the sea in New Taipei’s City’s Wanli District is Yehliu Geopark, a cape formed by geological forces pushing the Datun Mountain Range, which runs east-west along the north coast, up and out of the sea. Today, parts of the narrow 1.7 kilometer-long promontory look as though they’re one rough wave away from being taken by the sea, but luckily for visitors the shoreline is holding its ground.
The park is best known for its unique rock formations, most prominent among them the various hoodoo stones that dot the almost alien-looking landscape, jutting out of the sedimentary rock in delicate spires boasting precariously balanced heads upon their thin necks.
The main attraction for most tourists, as evidenced by the invariably long, snaking lineups each day, is the hoodoo stone known as the Queen’s Head, supposedly named for its likeness to the ancient Egyptian queen Nefertiti or England’s Queen Elizabeth I. According to recent stats, as many as three million tourists visit Yehliu Geopark and the Queen’s Head every year, though since the number of tourists from mainland China has declined recently, there might be fewer visitors these days.
Photographic evidence has shown that over time the beloved monarch’s thin, tapered neck has been eroding ever so slowly, stirring up debate as to whether technology should be used to save the “head” or if nature should be allowed to take its course. Some experts say the 4,000-year-old structure could, through exposure to the elements and the cruelties of erosion, topple any time between 2020 and 2025; some go even further, saying that the next strong typhoon or earthquake could take it down.
There are also many other Yehliu Geopark geological features worth having a closer look at, whether you’re an amateur rock hound, an aspiring geologist, or just in search of the most peculiar rock formations to use as selfie backgrounds. Among these are mushroom rocks, so named for their low-slung caps potted with indentations made by the acidic secretions of sea creatures that clamped on them in eons past when the stones were under the ocean’s surface. And there are pothole micro-ecosystems, ginger rocks, sea candles, and trilobite fossils well preserved in the bedrock protruding from the sea.
Yehliu Ocean World
The geopark is just one part of the Yehliu experience. Next to the park is Yehliu Ocean World, a facility offering both education and entertainment. This oceanarium educates visitors about the various marine-creature species in the seas surrounding Taiwan and those that habituate the waters of the world further away.
Visiting the facility’s exhibition area begins with a stroll through the life cycle of jellyfish, then you walk through a cave-like environment with tanks around every bend, each home to creatures both common and on the list of endangered species. Highlights include the green and hawksbill turtles, both classified as endangered species due to overfishing – the turtles often get caught up in fishing nets as incidental catch – and through consumption of harmful plastics which have come to contaminate the world’s oceans on an unprecedented level. According to information posted at the facility, only about 200,000 female green turtles remain in the wild at the present time.
From this section you move on to explore the oceans of the world, moving past tanks containing a wide variety of species, from tiny sea horses to the giant grouper (which, as is pointed out, was first commercially farmed in Taiwan to take pressure off the overfished wild population). All signage is bilingual, English and Chinese, so foreign visitors will feel right at home and can take full advantage of the exhibit’s educational benefits.
The educational exhibit is of course just one part of Ocean World’s appeal. People also come for the shows at the Ocean Theater, an amphitheater overlooking a large, deep pool and the ocean beyond. The pool is venue for various forms of entertainment, including a high-dive show, that I watched on a recent visit.
Featuring an international team of divers, the high-dive show is more than just tautly muscled men jumping off of high platforms. Yes, of course it has that, but the divers aim to put a bit of theater into the experience. It’s not exactly Shakespeare, but is most definitely inventive and entertaining, with a James Bond-style routine in which a diver styled after 007 faces off in comedic fashion with a masked villain. The show keeps the children in the crowd entranced.
Throughout the program the divers play to the onlookers, engaging them in games, calling out for spectator support and participation, and wowing the crowd with feats of athletic skill and courage as they climb higher and higher up the poolside ladder for their leaps, the performance concluding with a dive off the penultimate platform tens of meters above the water.
Complementing the male divers is a troupe of female synchronized swimmers, who put on an impressive display of Olympic-caliber under- and above-water acrobatics. The routines range from the graceful to the comedic, the divers and the water dancers playing off one another throughout the performance. All in all, it’s a good bit of fun for the young and the young at heart in the audience.
Not to denigrate the swimmers or the divers, but the real stars of the show are the marine creatures, namely the sea lions and the dolphins. The sea lions, which as becomes immediately apparent really are the puppy dogs of the sea, are up first. These highly intelligent creatures are put through their paces in a routine meant to entertain, but the performance also clearly shows why they are worthy of both our respect and continued efforts at protection.
A pair of sea lions does numerous tricks for the amusement and amazement of the crowd, balancing and bouncing balls on the ends of their noses, playing a game of basketball, catching rings around their necks both in the water and on land, and putting on a number of comedy routines.
In one sketch, the sea lions belly up to a bar, after which one appears to become quite inebriated and in need of revival. At the scene’s end the sea lions, as they do throughout, prompt the crowd to applaud with a vigorous slapping together of their fore flippers. With such adorable encouragement, it’s near impossible not to comply.
Next up are the dolphins, who also deftly demonstrate their grace and intelligence, obeying with speed and accuracy a plethora of commands for all manner of complex tasks. Dolphins, for the uninitiated, are one of the few creatures on earth other than humans thought to have their own language, and are possessed of a strength that sees them kick up a wake comparable to that of a small motorized watercraft when swimming at full tilt.
The pair performing at Ocean World goes through routines of synchronized diving, basketball tricks, ring and Frisbee catching, and hula-hoop spins. It’s impressive, to say the least, the debate surrounding the conservation and education efforts of places such as Ocean World vs. making a dolphin dance to “Gangnam Style” notwithstanding.
[This article was originally published in Travel in Taiwan, a publication by the Taiwan Tourism Bureau. All rights reserved.]