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Walking Through a Watery Wonderland
Bournemouth Oceanarium (Dorset)
Member Name: Hishyeness
Bournemouth Oceanarium (Dorset)
Advantages: Great value for money. Educational and engaging.
Disadvantages: None to speak of.
DOWN BY THE SEA
My wife's grandfather recently celebrated his 91st birthday, so the whole family went down to Bournemouth to see him. We were expected for a late afternoon tea, but as we were making the 90 mile trip down in any case, we decided to head down a little early and take advantage of some of the attractions Bournemouth has to offer. Although we have been to see him many times before, we have never properly explored Bournemouth, mainly because we let him choose what he wants to do when we visit.
That usually means a trip to the Blue Pool near Swanage and/or nice plate of fish and chips at a seaside restaurant. I suppose when you get to his age, you know what you like and your sense of adventure and appetite for new things is already sated. However, this time, we were free to decide on where we wanted to go. Our daughter really enjoyed the London Aquarium when we visited last year, so we settled on Bournemouth's equivalent - the Oceanarium.
LOCATION & PARKING
The Oceanarium is located on the Bournemouth seafront, very close to Bournemouth Pier and the Bournemouth International Centre. If travelling in by car, the attraction is clearly signposted with white on brown signage from each direction of Wessex Way - the main Bournemouth bypass road (A35/A338). The immediate area around the site is pedestrianised, so you will have to park in one of the nearby Pay & Display car parks and walk down.
The closest is the Bath Road South Car Park, your first left after you pass the grand Royal Bath Hotel. Parking fees are quite reasonable (we paid £3 for three hours) and you can pay by mobile phone if you are stuck for change. If arriving by train, the Oceanarium is about a mile from Bournemouth Station. If you don't fancy the walk, there are a several bus routes which leave from outside the station that serve Bournemouth Pier.
Prices are quite reasonable at £8.95 for adults and £6.40 for children (between three and fifteen). There are concessions for seniors, students, carers and the disabled (check the web site below for further details). Family tickets, catering for 2 adults and 2 children, or 2 adults and 3 children are available and offer a substantial saving on individual tickets. Tickets allow you unlimited visits on the day of entry, so you can easily break up a visit around lunch or a trip to the beach.
You can save a full twenty percent (20%) off the advertised ticket prices if you book on-line through their intuitive booking service at www.oceanarium.co.uk. We did this, without any hassles, the night before our trip. Each ticket has to be printed off separately (it has a bar code which is read at the entrance) in black and white or colour. The tickets are not tied to a particular day, but they must be used within a year of purchase. Most major credit cards are accepted (except Amex).
There was no queue when we arrived, so we presented our internet tickets to the friendly staff, who scanned them in without a problem. Guide books are available at the till for £2 apiece, providing a map of the facility and more detail on the exhibits, but after having a quick leaf through, I decided to leave it. Once past the admission desk, you go through a set of double doors and up a set of spiral steps into the first viewing area. If you are taking the buggy (as we were), there is a set of double doors immediately to the right of the stairs that leads to the lift (which opens out into the same space upstairs).
The exhibits are arranged by geographical and ecological area - such as the Mediterranean Sea, the Amazon and Ganges Rivers, the Everglades and "The Abyss". There are several large tanks, where the bigger specimens - at least those that peacefully co-exist together - are given a fair bit of freedom to roam around, as well as smaller, stand-alone exhibits which house the crankier and decidedly more aggressive specimens - like the vicious looking piranha.
The tanks are clean and well kept, with each environment realistically and attractively re-created. There are various additions to the tanks - like concave and convex viewing ports, which give the viewer a different and interesting perspective on the tank's inhabitants. Each of these tanks has an illuminated light board which sets out the vital statistics of each fish, along with interesting little factoids. At the entrance to each area, there is a large, colourful display that introduces the region displayed and provides a wealth of information which helps place the exhibits in context.
Apart from the fish themselves, there are a number of areas that really add to the experience. Turtle Cove is a large, airy, almost open area (the roof of the building is glass) where you can view - from above - giant sea turtles, sharks and various other creatures swimming around. On the floor of Turtle Cove is an underwater clear tunnel - accessed from a lower floor, which allows you to "walk" across the ocean floor, with the fish swimming to the side and overhead.
A highlight for me and my wife (but which scared the pants off my daughter) was the interactive dive cage. This is small open-ended room, covered on three sides with LCD screens, which takes you on a simulated journey into the belly of a blue whale, swimming with dolphins and a face to face encounter with a hungry Great White shark. The effect is quite realistic and was all too much for our daughter - so parents with young kids take note. The good news is that you can step in and out as you please, watching as little or as much as you like.
There are various other interactive elements - a joystick that gives you control over a 360 degree camera in the main tank, an exhibit on global warming that helps you visualise the consequences of rising sea levels, and a terminal where you can make a recorded voice or video pledge to save energy (ex. by washing at lower temperatures, checking car tyre pressures, taking a shower instead of a bath and unplugging phone chargers).
The attraction is both disabled and pushchair friendly, with lifts placed at strategic points to allow both types of users to access the whole facility. Buggy parks are provided for those who prefer to walk (or carry) their toddlers around. The Offshore Café is based on the ground floor and has a view over the seafront. It serves a selection of snacks, drinks and Starbucks coffee at slightly inflated (but not extortionate) prices. Having arrived just before lunch, after our visit, we indulged in two jackets with baked beans and salad, a tuna sandwich for our pre-schooler, two drinks, crisps and a vat of coffee for just under £20. High chairs and bottle-warming facilities are available on request.
There is a unisex (and disabled friendly) loo located on the ground floor in the café which is password protected to prevent passers-by from availing themselves of the facilities - the code is printed on the till receipt from your café purchase - something you don't realise until you need to use it and you've chucked it away. There are further toilets and baby-changing facilities in the main complex after the admission desk.
The foyer of the venue also has a well appointed gift shop called The Cove, which sells the usual selection of cheap ticky tack, as well as more upmarket souvenirs, ornaments, toys, books, and other gifts. They also sell ice cream and pick-n-mix, strategically and very visibly placed exactly where excited sweet-munchers will see them as soon as you come in, so be warned.
IS IT WORTH THE TRIP?
Having recently visited the London Aquarium at County Hall, we found the Oceanarium compared very favourably. Whilst it does not have the size and grandeur of its much bigger rival, everything seemed more intimate, more accessible and more interactive. As my daughter is currently home-schooled we had the advantage of visiting on a Wednesday lunchtime when we practically had the place to ourselves.
This ensured we could take our time with the exhibits, take full advantage of the interactive elements and even speak to the very knowledgeable, approachable and friendly staff about their aquatic charges. Even at the full ticket price, the visit proved exceptional value for money. The layout is thoughtful and child friendly, with lots of built-in activities designed to keep and hold those with even the shortest attention span.
Our visit took only about an hour, but we rushed through toward the end because our six month old was getting restless in his buggy and needed a feed (as did we all). However, you could quite easily spend two or three hours in there without getting bored, especially if you work in one or two of the animal feeding sessions scattered throughout the day. Our visit was ill-timed in the sense that we arrived just after a session and left just before another, so I can't comment on how good they are.
Given the reasonable price and the depth and breadth of the information and exhibits, the Oceanarium lends itself to repeat visits - an aspect clearly recognised by the management, who offer an annual pass (which also gives reduced admission to sister attractions at Blackpool Zoo and the Lakes Aquarium as well as a wealth of other discounts and membership perks) which at around £25, pays for itself after three visits - a reasonable proposition if you are relatively local.
Our trip to the Oceanarium was a great success. The venue is a colourful, engaging and educational experience which we all thoroughly enjoyed. It's probably not enough of a draw on its own to justify a long trip to Bournemouth, but if you are in the area for other reasons (as we were) or are down in Dorset on holiday, it is well worth a side trip.
Oceanarium: The Bournemouth Aquarium
Pier Approach (next to Bournemouth Pier)
Bournemouth BH22 5AA
Tel: 01202 311 993
Open 10am to 5pm (last admission at 4pm) every day except Christmas Day
Managed by the Parques Reunidos Group
© Hishyeness 2010
Summary: A great family attraction in the heart of Bournemouth
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