A Final Farewell to the Good Ol’ Underwater World

Once the largest tropical fish oceanarium in Asia, the Underwater World will be walking into the history books today, after 25 years of operation at Sentosa.

underwater world sentosa

It took more than two years, between 1988 and 1991, and $20 million to build the Underwater World on the western end of Sentosa island. The idea of a marine oceanarium in Singapore to boost tourism was mooted in the late seventies, prompted by the success of Hong Kong’s Ocean Park, opened in 1977.

At that period, the only similar attraction was the Van Kleef Aquarium at Fort Canning Park, which was built by the municipal government in 1955. The construction funds of the aquarium came from the estate proceeds owned by Dutch businessman Karl Willem Benjamin van Kleef, who, before his death in 1930, bequeathed them to the government for “the embellishment of the Singapore town”. The aquarium was hence named in honour of him.

construction of underwater world late 1980s

In the late eighties, the Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC) collaborated with the Western Australia Development Corporation and New Zealand company Marinescape Corporation in a joint venture to develop the Underwater World. When the new attraction was completed and opened in May 1991, it became an instant hit. As many as 200,000 people visited it in just the first month of its opening. A year later, the Underwater World received its first millionth visitor, and by 1996, almost nine million had paid their visits to the oceanarium.

The success of the new Underwater World also meant that the Van Kleef Aquarium had to face even stiffer competition. The aging aquarium was already having difficulties sustaining its business after its visitorship rapidly declined in the eighties. In just two weeks after the opening of the Underwater World, Van Kleef Aquarium was closed for good.

underwater world sentosa1 1991

The interior layout of the Underwater World is made up of a main hall, mid foyer and an observation tunnel. Inside the main hall are exhibits of living fossils, marine reef tanks and a stingray feeding pool. The mid foyer showcases interesting marine life such as spider crabs, seahorses, giant octopuses, cuttlefish and different species of fishes.

The star attraction of the Underwater World is its iconic 83m-long underwater observation tunnel made up of thick acrylic panes. A travelator brings the visitors round the tunnel where they can have close-up views of sharks, rays, groupers, snappers, eels and turtles swimming in three million litres of filtered sea water.

underwater world sentosa2 1991

Over the years, the Underwater World has been actively involved in the conservation of the marine life and environment. It had collaborated with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in the coral conservation, and worked in research projects with other regional aquariums, such as the Port of Nagoya Public Aquarium of Japan, in the protection of Hawksbill Turtles. In 2005, it also sponsored the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve marine fish program.

underwater world turtle viewing chamber2

underwater world turtle viewing chamber3

underwater world turtle viewing chamber4

Many political leaders of other countries had paid visits to the Underwater World. In 1994, Jiang Zemin, then-President of the People’s Republic of China, was invited to a tour at Sentosa’s Pioneers of Singapore & Surrender Chamber Museum (present-day Images of Singapore) and the Underwater World.

The oceanarium’s other distinguished guests-of-honour in the nineties also included Nursultan Nazarbayev (President of Kazakhstan), Gyula Horn (Prime Minister of Hungary), Tiit Vähi (Prime Minister of Estonia), Henri Konan Bedie (President of Ivory Coast), Isaias Afwerki (President of Eritrea), Joaquim Alberto Chissano (President of Mozambique) and Tran Duc Luong (President of Vietnam).

underwater world turtle viewing chamber1

underwater world shark sculpture

In 1992, three Tan brothers, Chwee Lye, Chwee Lee and Chwee Chye, splashed $25 million to take over the Underwater World. It would again change ownership, three years later, when the oceanarium was bought by Haw Par Brothers International (now Haw Par Corporation) for $56 million. The company would pay another $32 million during its full acquisition of the Underwater World at the end of the nineties.

underwater world sentosa galleries1

The Underwater World established one of its milestones in 1999 when it added six pink dolphins at its new Dolphin Lagoon. Despite being one of the more popular features at the oceanarium, the Dolphin Lagoon had constantly attracted criticisms from the animal rights groups for its captivity of the dolphins. In 2014, the Underwater World was also put on negative headlines when one of its pink dolphins was found suffering from skin cancer.

underwater world sentosa galleries2

On 26 June 2016, the Underwater World, a place that has provided fun and childhood memories for many Singaporeans, will be permanently closed. The new Southeast Asia (SEA) Aquarium, built by Resort World Singapore in 2012, is currently the main oceanarium attraction at Sentosa.

Just like how the older generation would fondly remember Van Kleef Aquarium, the Underwater World will probably be also remembered next time by the Gen X and Gen Y Singaporeans as one of their childhood haunts.

A last look at the good ol’ Underwater World before its closure:

underwater world tickets

underwater world sentosa galleries4

underwater world sentosa galleries5

underwater world sentosa galleries6

underwater world sentosa galleries7

underwater world sentosa galleries3

underwater world tunnel1

underwater world tunnel2

underwater world tunnel3

underwater world tunnel6

underwater world tunnel4

underwater world tunnel5

underwater world koi pond

underwater world closure

Published: 26 June 2016

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8 Responses to A Final Farewell to the Good Ol’ Underwater World

  1. oldpoet56 says:

    Beautiful pictures with a sad story.

  2. Adrian says:

    I went here with the love of my life. So sad to see it close. Sentosa is a very special place for us and I had hoped that it would never change but Singapore is always changing. Sometimes not for the better. It and she will live on in my memories. I still love you Jaclyn

  3. Who still remember the iconic Wisma Atria aquarium? Back in 2008, when it was removed, the fish were given a new home at the Underwater World….

    (Photo Credit: http://forums.hardwarezone.com.sg/users/354879/)

    Wisma’s fish to get new home

    04 April 2008
    AsiaOne News

    After delighting countless babies and fascinating streams of passing shoppers and tourists for two decades, Wisma Atria’s iconic fish tank will be removed.

    More than 100 fish from the 20-cubic-metre tank will be moved to the Underwater World Singapore at 9am next Wednesday. The 1.5-metre tall tank at Wisma’s basement has been home to hundreds of fish spanning 12 different species since it was built in 1986, when the mall was first opened.

    The move, according to Ms Amy Lim, general manager of Macquarie Pacific Star Property Management which owns the mall, is to allow the marine life to continue to thrive in a bigger andmore natural aquatic ecosystem at the oceanarium.

    “We are delighted to have found a good home for the fish. While the aquarium has brought much cheer to customers at Wisma Atria over the years, we have decided to use the space to enhance the retail offering in Wisma Atria,” she said.

    The company declined to provide more details on future plans for the space. Underwater World Singapore’s general manager Mr Kwek Meng Tiam said that the fish would be introduced to their new home with arms wide open: “Together with their 2,500 relatives here, we warmly welcome them as part of our big family.”

    But most shoppers my paper interviewed were reluctant to see the fish tank go. University student Stefanie Tung, 19, said the tank reminded her of shopping trips with her mother when she was a toddler.

    “The fish will probably get better care but it’s such a pity. I can’t visualise anything else in its place,” she said.

    Receptionist Ms Hani Kader, 36, said it was a popular landmark for meeting friends when she was a teenager. Now, she brings her one-year-old son Reezwan Mas Junaidi to view the fish at least once a fortnight.

    Pointing out the fish to Reezwan while the duo were taking a mid-shopping break on Wednesday afternoon, Ms Hani said: “It’s too bad it won’t be here when he’s a teenager.”

    One jewellery store salesgirl at the basement level,Miss Liew Ziling, 22, has even personally christened one fish within the tank “Ah Or” for its deep black colour. Said Miss Liew, who has been working at the mall for five years: “Must they really move the fish tank? Can you tell them not to?”

    To mark the big move, Wisma Atria has lined up a week-long promotion for aquarium fans and shoppers to bid their farewells. Shoppers can send in their fondest memories of the aquarium. Those with the most moving stories and pictures stand to win limited edition Fish Series stamp sets and tickets to the Underwater World Singapore.

    A photography station will also be set up for shoppers to take their final photographs with the aquarium fish this weekend.


  4. Oh why do our favourite places in Singapore always have to change, move or close down?

    01 July 2016
    Reena Devi, TODAY

    I still remember the first time my family took me to the Singapore Zoo as a four year old. I was given my first ice cream on a cone, which promptly fell to the ground and started an immediate outburst of tears. Despite that incident, the zoo has since become for us a special place for family outings. I still have fond memories of my younger sister and I standing outside the glass enclosure, entranced by the black panther pacing within. And that sense of nostalgia and fondness has never gone away.

    We associate physical places with significant moments in our lives. Even the smallest, most frivolous milestones, such as the first time we went clubbing or the first fast food meal we had with the family, take on greater meaning when we look back. And in a place with a constantly and rapidly changing urban landscape like Singapore’s, it is inevitable the pang of nostalgia runs deep.

    Just take the overwhelming number of visitors recently at Underwater World Singapore before it closed last Sunday. About 160,000 visitors had thronged the place since news of its pending closure came out on June 6. (We’re sure the slashing of ticket prices from S$29.90 to S$9 for adults and from S$20.60 to S$5 for children was a huge motivation.)

    One of the visitors is Naomi Soh Xin Yun, a graphic designer and self-confessed Underwater World enthusiast, who is now in her 20s. She gushed about “a sense of amazement and wonder” she felt at Underwater World during school trips. “Even as an adult, you still feel that sense of wonder. My favourite part is the tunnel with the conveyor belt. Just standing there looking at all the marine life around me is an experience I’ve always anticipated and will never forget,” she added wistfully.

    Change and evolution

    There’s also buzz around the reopening of the iconic McDonald’s at East Coast Park today following the redevelopment of Marine Cove since 2014.

    This branch of McDonald’s holds a special place in many Singaporeans’ hearts. Since it opened in January 1982, it has served more than 
25 million customers. But it wasn’t just a fast-food outlet. Perhaps 
because of its distinctive spot, it was a place for get-togethers with friends and families. Kids in the 1980s would shriek and climb on top of statues of Hamburglar and friends, while teens stayed up late there when the outlet was open 24/7 in the noughties. Harried office workers made the drive-through their regular pitstop to pick up dinner or breakfast.

    McDonald’s Singapore’s managing director Robert Hunghanfoo agrees. “Our restaurant at East Coast Park was extremely special for many Singapore residents: Couples dated there, it was a place where friends and families spent time, and the crew were part of our family there,” he said. “With the opening of McDonald’s Marine Cove, we look forward to creating even more fond memories with Singaporeans, connecting with them in a brand new way.”

    The new McDonald’s at Marine Cove has evolved with the times. Technology and healthy eating have become integral to Singaporeans and the new outlet reflects that: Seven self-ordering kiosks, 30 wireless charging stations for mobile devices and Google Cardboard viewers that will allow customers to experience a virtual reality tour of the restaurant (even though they are already in the outlet). The restaurant also features family-friendly amenities such as pram parking areas and a shadow wall for children to play with.

    While children of the ’80s may moan that nothing will ever replace the former McDonald’s playground, the area surrounding the outlet now has similarly been upgraded by National Parks Board (NParks) to inject more activity in the green spaces at East Coast Park. And, yes, there’s a massive new playground, with an 8m high tower inspired by a lighthouse as its focal point. The playground is also equipped with many other play elements including three slides, a rope bridge and climbing 
net courses.

    “The National Parks Board 
developed Marine Cove based on a family and lifestyle concept with a focus on providing recreation for families,” said Kong Yit San, assistant chief executive officer of Park Management and Lifestyle Cluster at NParks. “East Coast Park is Singapore’s most popular park, catering to the diverse needs of users. There are quiet corners, as well as lawn areas where families and friends can play together.”

    New but same

    The idea of familiar places changing over time elicits a hotchpotch of emotions from its regulars. As Charmaine Hon, a linguistics graduate and teacher, pointed out, these symbols of cultural history are hard to come by. “The place suddenly becomes historically important when it is about to go or is already gone”, she said.

    Jacquelyyn Soo, a long-time resident in the east, acknowledges that her feelings about such developments have changed. “I used to be sad about them but now I think it’s good to move things around — the best outcome would be combining elements from the past and present.”

    And there are attempts to retain the historic and socially significant essence of these places. Take Haw Par Villa. Built in 1937 by businessman Aw Boon Haw (inventor of the Tiger Balm ointment), Haw Par Villa is known for its fascinating statues depicting gory scenes from Chinese folklore. The garden grounds were acquired by the Government in the late 1980s and subsequently leased out to private companies to be developed and managed as a commercial theme park and, subsequently, public park. In spite of these changes, the park has remained as foreboding as ever. (Who can forget the creepy boat ride through the Courts of Hell, with its statues located in the gut of a 60m long dragon structure? Sadly, this was shut down in the late 1990s.)

    Moving forward, operator Journeys was recently appointed to run the park. As part of their efforts to inject more activities and reach out to younger visitors, Journeys organised Escape, an outdoor edutainment game, last May. There were 3,000 people who visited the 79-year-old park on those two Saturdays, and the operator intends to reach out to more schools and the public through similar educational and 
fun activities.

    Another local cultural icon undergoing change is Zouk, located at the warehouses along Jiak Kim Street. It will be relocating to Clarke Quay by the end of the year, as its lease with the Urban Redevelopment Authority has expired. Since its opening in 1991, Zouk is probably the club everyone went to at least once, an inevitable introduction to clubbing in Singapore.

    As Sofie Chandra, head of marketing & events at Zouk sees it, it is more than a space and location. “We are a brand about the people and we will always remain that way,” she said, adding that Zouk’s new space will retain the consistency of its programming and direction for music. “There are exciting plans coming up for the new Zouk but we promise that the spirit and motto of Zouk will always remain — One World, One Music, One Tribe, One Dance.”

    And even if a space completely disappears, the memories are irreplaceable and the outpouring of affection remains. Fish & Co. Glass House, a venue for countless birthday celebrations, graduation parties, first dates and wedding proposals (thanks to the huge LOVE sculpture in front of the Glass House) will be shuttered completely after 14 years in October due to redevelopment works by Park Mall. And according to Tan Yi Lin, assistant marketing manager at Fish & Co., customers have been flocking to the outlet. “Though it’s sad to know that the Glass House will be closing soon, we are really heartened to see many customers gathering at the Glass House again for one last time to reminisce the good old days before we bid it goodbye. This goes to show that the Fish & Co. Glass House has held a significant place in the hearts of many customers. It’s a place where many loved ones have created fond memories over good food, service 
and ambience.”

    Sometimes, just sometimes, it would suffice to have these places in our memories where they are rendered perfect in retrospect.


  5. zzzisle says:

    so you visited the site with your family before the closure?

  6. The Monorail and Underwater World 1992

    Both Sentosa landmarks had walked into the history

    (Photo Credit: Facebook Group “Nostalgic Singapore”)

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