When it comes to fish and other marine-life, I've got to admit I'm a bit of an anorak. I have been known to dazzle diners with a description of the lifestyle and behavioural habits of the contents of a sea-food pasta. For years I have put myself through some extremely uncomfortable trips on grubby little dive boats in search of great beasts. However, for me there's not a lot that beats a trip to a world-class aquarium.
The Oceanario in Lisbon has been on my must-see list for years. When my Portuguese friend Theresa told me there were plans to build a mega-aquarium for the 1998 World Expo, we vowed that I would visit Lisbon and we would go see the fishies. Of course, life moved on and I forgot all about it until May this year when I took a long overdue trip to visit Theresa. I had a bit of a 'google' on Lisbon attractions before I left and was reminded about my old vow, texted Theresa a 'lets do fish' message (she knew I meant sightseeing, not dinner) and packed my bag.
Where is the Oceanario?
It's at the 1998 Expo site is on the outskirts of Lisbon. It's by the waterfront, not far from the spectacular new Vasco De Gama bridge. The area - a bit like the Olympic Port in Barcelona - has become a key part of Lisbon nightlife and dining and on a sunny Sunday afternoon, the bars and restaurants, parks and walkways were buzzing with locals taking the sun. The Oceanario is set amongst acres of picnicking families and kids playing in the park. To one side the cable car whizzes along the waterfront. You can get the metro out to the park - there's lots of transport infrastructure put in place for the Expo. You have no excuse not to go.
The Oceanario was of major symbolic importance for the Expo. Lisbon's history and glory is closely associated with the sea and the Oceanario is a tribute to the Portuguese love of the sea. It's a large square building set in the middle of a pond - how appropriate - linked to the main 'land' by a devious two-way double decker bridge. Visitors go up to the building along the upper deck and when they finish, come back down the lower deck.
On this Sunday afternoon in May, at around 3 pm the line for tickets wasn't long. That didn't stop them putting us through one of those zig-zag line control systems so loved by immigration and security check people in airports. After a good bit of zigging and more than enough zagging, the queue just fell apart and everyone stood around not knowing quite what to do.
We paid our dosh - 10.50 Euros per adult with reductions for seniors (6.50, I think) and kids and special family deals for 24 Euros. I was almost tempted to borrow a couple of kids in order to get better value but then remembered the time I took a friend's kids to The Blue Planet in Ellesmere Port and came quickly to my senses. (Somebody please explain to me, why is it that kids think the shop is much more interesting than a massive tank of sharks).
Most big aquariums tease you with little displays, often of different environments. They build up your sense of excitement with a few star fish and little guppy things. And then just when you can't imagine it can get better WHAM they throw the BIG TANK in front of you, often with a moving walkway and a tunnel through the tank before delivering you dazed and overwhelmed out into the shop to part with all your dosh.
Not in Lisbon. This is an aquarium that doesn't need to tease and play games - it knows it's got a stunning display and it lures you back time and time again.
The Open Ocean
You walk in to the building and there, right in front of you with no preamble, no trailer, no tease, is the main event. 5000 cubic meters of salt water representing the Open Ocean. A colossus of a tank bursting with sharks, rays, barracuda et al - truly the big boys of the sea including manta rays, my personal favourites. I'm assuming that most of these are plankton or small fish eaters because I can't see how they'd all live peacefully together - I can't imagine a feeding frenzy of murderous fish going down too well with the Lisbon parents and school groups. However, when I think about it further, maybe that's why there are no little fish in the tank.
Once the shock of the Open Ocean tank had started to subside, my next thought was 'how do you follow that?'. And that's where the surprises start.
The Coastal Zones
The top layer of the aquarium has a terrestrial theme. The lower layer is the underwater zone. At the corners of the aquarium are 4 sub-environments representing different coastal 'zones'. The first of these is the North Atlantic Ocean which is characterised by puffins, auks and murres. BIRDS? You are thinking to yourselves, what are they doing there? And that's the unique wonderful thing about the Oceanario. It's not just fish. I was completely wowed by the puffins and teed off by their constant movement which meant I couldn't get a photo without a blur - there's a strict no flash policy.
Next stop - the Antarctic Ocean - complete with big lumps of snow and ice and.........wait for it....... PENGUINS. No pun intended but how cool is that? Lots of pretty little Magellan penguins happily living and breeding in Lisbon. The set up gives the birds lots of little nooks and crannies to hide in if the crowds get annoying. All the penguins have little tags on their wings - I did wonder if this was to prevent penguin-napping. I can just picture myself leaving the aquarium and the buzzers going off. The security guards asking to see in my bag as I fake surprise 'gosh, how did he get in there?' and then having to put back my aquarium-lifting goodies.
On to the Pacific Ocean and the stars of the show. Two very noisy and entertaining sea otters. The lady is named after a famous Fado singer (yep, that's famous as in 'world famous in all of Portugal) and the fella is called Eusebio after the rather more famous footballer. Eusebio is a sea otter with a lot of attitude and a lot to say for himself. He'll perform acrobatics for the cameras for hours whilst his 'wife' pops up now and then to shake her head at his showing off again. They are about a meter long, squeak a lot, scratch their tummies and rub their noses. Bless.
How do you follow that? Off to the Tropical Indian Ocean. A bit of a disappointment at first sight but then if you listen carefully and get your eyes tuned there are beautiful song birds in the lush trees. For me the fish in this area aren't so exciting as they are quite standard fare in many of the best dive locations but the birds are wonderful.
On the lower level, your visit starts to get a bit more crowded because there are lots of smaller tanks illustrating different aspects of the underwater world. Because many of these displays are viewable from only one side, there can be a bit of pushing and shoving to get a good view. Good thing my elbows are nice and sharp because I wasn't planning on missing out on anything. Surprisingly, most of the kids in the place were very well behaved - certainly better than I've seen elsewhere but maybe that's partly because the adults are behaving like big kids themselves.
Downstairs you can also see the water below each of the four coastal zones so if you wait you can see the puffins, penguins and sea otters diving.
The side tanks include: Rocky Habitat, flatfish, schooling fish, jellies, fish from the Azores (well it is Portugal and the islands are a bit special), anenomes and coastal animals, sea dragons and sea horses, a giant octopus, deep water fish, gobies, wolfeels, corals, poisonous fish, angler fish, illuminescent fishes and jellies, and so on and so on. I think you get the idea. There are a lot of different fish. I love most of them.
All the way around both layers, you keep being drawn back to the central open ocean tank. It doesn't seem to matter how many times you look at it, there's always something new to see.
So do I recommend it?
Go on, I'll give you three guesses, but you won't need two of them. Of course I do. This is a place I waited nearly 10 years to see so it could so easily have been a disappointment.
Is it worth 10.50 Euros? Absolutely. I'd gladly sell my house and all its contents to go and hang out at the oceanarium. Apparently kids can take their sleeping bags and go for sleepovers - how jealous am I?
What else can you do at the Expo site?
Who cares? There are lots of fish. What more do you need?
OK. There are also bars and restaurants, a casino, a big shopping centre, a cable car, gardens, picnic sites, an exhibition hall oh and loads of other cool stuff. But if you ask me, it's all about the fish.