Lee Kuan-hsin never fully appreciated the beauty of his hillside hometown overlooking the Pacific Ocean until he bumped into a Singaporean marine biologist searching for crabs on the beach a few years ago.
The scientist told him this area on the east coast is one of the world's richest sources of marine life, but many species might soon be depleted. Alarmed by the prediction, Lee dropped out of college and set up the nation's only crab aquarium.
He says most of his specimens were donated by fishermen.
"I could save many crab species from extinction, while they could proudly show off their catch to friends," said the 32-year-old owner of the Pei Kuan Aquarium in Ilan County.
With a greater awareness of their environment, Lee and many other Taiwanese are working to save the nation from decades of neglect and damage caused by its frenetic pursuit of economic growth.
Together with the government, they are making efforts to build the country into a major environmental-friendly tourist attraction.
Ilan forms part of a 70km northeast coastal belt that begins at Keelung. The coastline winds along tall, green mountains that run from north to south, making up the spine of the island.
A two-hour drive along the coastal highway offers spectacular sights of rock formations, bays lined with white sand beaches, and capes protruding into the seas as landmarks for sailors.
Tourists can take cruises on pleasure boats that provide a panoramic view of the winding coastline facing the Pacific.
The star of the cruise is the volcanic Turtle Islet, or Kueishan Dao (
When the tide is right, one may catch a glimpse of dolphins or whales jumping out of the water. This part of the sea is home to a great variety of marine life, with a warm current passing through it and a ridge rising from the seabed that gathers plankton to provide food for fish.
At the aquarium and resort in Pei Kuan, visitors listened intently as Lee guided them on a tour of the some 700 shellfish species -- from gigantic deep-sea crabs to thumb-size ones from mountain creeks.
"Can you guess if crabs can move straight forward?" he asked.
"They can. They walk straight ahead to grab food and sideways to run for their life," he said, explaining that crabs have eyes and noses in front.
The resort also gives ecology classes to children.
Further south in the Suao fishing port, former coral trader Lai Rong-hsin has shut down his jewelry shop and has turned it into a coral museum.
"After making so much money from exports, we should save what's left of our natural resources for our children," Lai said as he showed tourists his collections of pink and red tree-shaped corals.
Many of the large pieces took more than 100 years to grow, he said.
The fishing port had 400 coral ships 30 years ago. The number is now down to fewer than 50 as the reserves are getting depleted, and the government has set more stringent rules for harvesting coral, Lai said.
The many bustling fishing ports along the northeast coast are often crowded with tourists, who feast on seafood after touring fish markets and enjoying the ocean view.
To the north, Longdong Bay is a hot place for sailing, diving, surfing, canoeing and rock climbing. Scaling a steep hill, one can follow a trail to a sandstone cape and get a panoramic view of the bay.
Three sea water pools by a coral reef, which were transformed from commercial scallop ponds a few years ago, are ideal for swimming and snorkeling.
When he is not giving snorkeling and diving lessons, Yin Teh-cheng is busy collecting sea urchins, sea snails and clams. He puts the creatures in the pools.
"Many children are aware of the need to preserve marine life. They don't take away what they can lay their hands on," Yin said.
Officials say fishermen often take dolphins stranded on the beach back to the sea instead of slaughtering them as they did before.
The rising awareness of the environment is perhaps best displayed at Baimi town, a community near Suao with 800 residents.
After numerous protests, Baimi residents forced the town's many cement plants to shut down a decade ago. They have since turned the community into a tourist attraction by making wooden sandals, which were popular before they were replaced by plastic flip-flops 20 years ago.
Tourists now buy the clogs carved with floral patterns as souvenirs. They are also invited to join a clog dance or take some time to paint the clogs at a workshop.
"We chose the life we wanted, and we're working hard to keep it going," housewife and tour guide Ma Yu-chin said.
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