Housed in a purpose-built pale mauve inter-galactic dome, the Mare Nostrum aquarium is the latest arrival at the Odysseum complex. The result of 10 years of planning and 2 years of construction, the centre cost 27.5 million euros to build and is publicly owned but privately run. In the two months since it opened, around 115,000 people have visited.
Entrance costs 36 euros for two adults and two children and on a damp Sunday afternoon in the February school holidays, the place was packed.
The exhibition starts with the usual displays of sea horses and crabs and lobsters, a large window looking into a deep sea environment, and then moves onto a section explaining about currents and waves - but I must be plain stupid, because we couldn't make head or tail of the computer animations. (Possibly being assisted by a bunch of other people's toddlers intent on rubbing their hands all over the screen wasn't helpful?)
From there we passed into a reconstructed fishing boat. Well, perhaps it wasn't a fishing boat. Maybe it was a submarine. Or a navy ship. It was a small sea-going craft anyway. You file in and stand in the wheelhouse so that you can watch the sea through the windows of the bridge. A storm brews up, the deck shudders under your feet, water slashes across the windows, the vessel heaves and tips through the sea, various items come loose from their moorings, skitter across the deck and over the bows. It grows darker, and suddenly the electrical systems cut out. The storm rages, at times so fiercely that you can't see out of the windows any more. And then suddenly, the sea calms, the sun starts to rise and the nightmare is over.
It's time to file out and let the next crowd in for the "Ocean Storm Experience". The kids simply adored it - especially as you can play with the ship's wheel and turn the control panel lights on and off.
I'd say this was the absolute highlight of the visit for everyone, although leaving the ship and coming face to face with a small iceberg was also pretty er... cool. Visitors have already dug holes in it, and it's impossible to resist the temptation to stick your own fingers into the depths as you walk by.
Next up is a discovery room where you can cuddle crustaceans from Tuesday to Friday - the aquarium is closed Mondays. As the supervisors only work weekdays we shuffled on with crowd to see the penguins. These depressed and lethargic creatures appeared to be undergoing some sort of training aimed at getting them to peck a ball on the end of a stick, and frankly I found the sight of them inured in the warm and sticky darkness a bit heart-wrenching - especially when just a few metres away outside the aquarium was sunshine and fresh air. Why wasn't their enclosure bigger and built with an outdoors area?
Moving on, we came across yet another viewing window into - literally speaking - the central attraction of the exhibition: a colossal seawater tank containing all kinds of fish including sharks and a large ominous ray. Looking upwards through the water gives a great impression of what it must be like to be a diver and we were mesmerised.
From there we wandered on, gazing at various other tanks of sea creatures and until we emerged into the bright light of the tropical forest area, complete with piranhas, a waterfall, a bizarre selection of postcard on bamboo stalks and two large reptiles in a small glass case. After which all that remained was the pleasant but uninspiring café, the stuffy unisex conveniences and the inevitable shop brimming with plastic mermaids, fluffy crabs and kits to send a message in a bottle. Getting younger kids through this area is tricky. Older kids however can't wait to get out.
You may only ever want to visit this attraction once. Children however, will want to go over and over again - mainly for the Storm Experience. So plan carefully. Chose your time; mornings are less crowded and the quietest days are Tuesdays and Thursdays.
It will soon be possible to buy tickets online but for the moment you can only buy them in person from the aquarium. You can however buy them in advance, so if you can get there early in the morning, buying tickets in advance for a Sunday afternoon will save you up to an hour in the queue. (With these tickets, you can use the side door designated for pregnant women, people in wheelchairs, people with tickets, etc.)
My final planning tip is to check the visitor information section of the website (www.aquariummarenostrum.fr) for times of shark feeding, penguin training, divers washing aquarium windows, crab cuddling and the rest. (Sharks are currently fed on Tuesdays and Fridays at 3pm.)
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