MATSUSHIMA, MIYAGI PREF. – Right after the Great East Japan Earthquake struck in March 2011, Junichi Jingu, manager of exhibits at Marinepia Matsushima Aquarium, feared that he would never see its rare Commerson’s dolphins again.
“The shaking was so strong that I thought the floors would collapse,” Jingu, 59, recalled.
The aquarium in Miyagi Prefecture’s famed coastal town managed to evacuate its crowds to higher ground before the huge tsunami struck. But when Jingu returned several hours later, a scene of devastation greeted him.
“It was all covered with mud and we had no idea what to do,” he said.
The aquarium is known for its Commerson’s dolphins, which are also called panda dolphins because of the black and white patterns on their bodies. They live around the southern tip of South America and only around 3,000 are thought to be left. The aquarium is one of only three in the world that stock the dolphins, along with the Toba Aquarium in Mie Prefecture and a facility in the United States.
“The earthquake apparently made them panic as well,” Jingu said, noting the dolphins are very sensitive to sound and tend to swim rapidly and repeat wild jumps when frightened by noise.
“At the time of the earthquake, they seem to have kept swimming, creating huge waves in the tank,” he said.
At the time, there were three dolphins in the aquarium — a couple and a female pup born in June 2010.
The pup, named Sakura, used to swim actively but started clinging to its mother after the magnitude 9.0 quake, which apparently traumatized it, Jingu said.
The quake also disrupted all water, electricity and gas at the facility, while the tsunami flooded the pump it used to circulate the water in the tank, meaning Jingu couldn’t clean it. The tank rapidly got dirtier, rendering the dolphins nearly invisible.
“I was afraid that this would be the last time we would be taking care of Commerson’s dolphins,” said Jingu, who had looked after them ever since they arrived in 1987.
But Jingu and his colleagues refused to give up and worked hard to remove the debris, rinse away the dirt and clean out the pump.
“We’ve always done whatever we can without support from others, which I believe helped us get through the disaster even more smoothly during its aftermath, when it was impossible to depend on anyone,” he said.
The aquarium is privately run and doesn’t receive any subsidies from the prefecture or the town.
Ten days later, the tank was circulating water again.
“Our dolphins managed to survive without getting sick,” Jingu said. “I was impressed by their vitality.”
But some of the animals and fish failed to survive, including the aquarium’s beavers and giant sunfish.
The aquarium reopened on April 23, 1½ months after the catastrophe.
Jingu said he wasn’t sure anyone would return, since aftershocks were continuing to buffet the region and the town hadn’t recovered yet. To his surprise, many people flocked to the facility.
“I was so happy and felt so grateful (to see those visitors),” Jingu said. “Although aquariums are not the same as bread and can’t ease people’s hunger, I realized that they are indispensable, serving as an oasis in life.”