Newest Review: ... inside to get out in an emergency. ** The aquarium experience** Once inside the main exhibition area you are led on a route that leads... more
Sea Life in the London Underground
Member Name: MelissaRuth
Advantages: Many sea life species close up. Supports conservation.
Disadvantages: Oppresive environment. Crowded. Hot.
The Sea Life Centre is located on the London's Southbank, in the old County Hall building, right next to the London Eye, so combining these two attractions together can make a good day out and a combined pass can be purchased. Combined tickets are also available for the other London 'Merlin' group attractions such as the London Dungeons and Madam Tussauds, if you're not luck enough to have the full pass. Westminster Tube station is the nearest, but I'd encourage approaching on foot and experiencing the above ground atmosphere of London as nowhere is really far away in this city. Tickets cost £22.80 for over 16s and £17.40 for 3 - 15 year olds. These reduce by 25% after 3pm Behind the scenes tours are an extra £7.50. Opening hours are 9am - 8pm daily.
We arrived about 12.30 and there was only a very short queue inside the building and we were ushered straight to the doors leading into the exhibitions where our passes were checked, bypassing the ticket booths. As we left at 3.00 there was a line forming outside, but still not too long. The centre caters well for wheelchair users and those with pushchairs and two lifts offer an alternative to the stairs as you dive down into the basement to begin your trip. Yes, the entire experience is below ground! I found this quite scary, especially as it is right next to the River Thames as well, so I was aware that the other side of the concrete wall was a wall of water.
My main negative feelings about the aquarium stem from the fact that it was all below ground with no natural light or air. It felt quite oppressive and in many places the ceilings are low. There is no getting away from the fact that you're in the basement of a huge building - there are large expanses of concrete and huge steel girders across the ceilings. In most areas good attempts have been made to disguise them and create a backdrop to suit the fish of that section e.g. ivy and other vegetation covers the ceiling in the tropical area. I was very aware of my safety or potential lack of it the entire time and watched out for the emergency exits, which fortunately occurred at quite regular intervals. I know this building must have passed stringent health and safety inspections and maybe I'm a wimp, but I did worry about how easy it would be for the large numbers of people inside to get out in an emergency.
** The aquarium experience**
Once inside the main exhibition area you are led on a route that leads you around the ocean environments of the world with aquariums of various sizes. The first aquariums are quite small and I found myself comparing it less favourably than the Brighton Sea Life Centre that I have also been too, but as we entered 'The Deep' tank that represents The Atlantic Ocean I was suitably impresses. I think it is probably the largest such tank that I've seen and includes a model skeleton of an 80 foot whale as part of the habitat for the vast numbers of fish in this exhibition. There are numerous viewing areas for this tank at various heights, although you can't look into it from above which was a shame. The tunnel through which you can walk through the tank offers great visibility, but it is very short compared to others that I've visited. I could have stood and watched the huge rays, the sharks, giant turtle and countless other species for hours, but we were not the only ones wanting to watch by a long way so there was always pressure to move along and let the next person in for their turn.
The other large tank holds species native to the Pacific Ocean. I found this tank to be far more sparse in its vegetation than the Atlantic one which was bursting with colour and nooks and crannies in rocks for the fish to swim through. The Pacific area had more rock features and a large statue. Perhaps this is more true to the difference in habitats in the two oceans, as I believe the Pacific is deeper so probably has less vegetation. Three huge traditional looking sharks swim in this tank along with a tiger shark and many smaller fish. I appear to have done a really bad job of taking in the names of fish species to pass on in this review. At other aquariums I have been more aware of what fish I was observing, as there have been boards up with pictures of all of the fish. At the London Centre it is more high tech with computer screens by each exhibit. The problem I found with this was that if there were multiple fish in a tank it scrolled through information about them and I could rarely look at the type of fish that I was interested in without waiting it for it to scroll through and with large crowds this just wasn't possible. I have to say that I was more interested in just watching the fish swim and trying to take good photos with the aquarium setting of my camera than taking in lots of factual information. If that's what you like though it is there, but you have to be patient.
Other environments that you pass through on the journey, are the jungle section that contains crocodiles and terrapins and a tropical area with coral reefs and beautiful bright coloured smaller fish, which really attracted the younger children as they spotted 'Nemo' and 'Dori' look a likes from the Finding Nemo film. I have to say that I have seen other far more brightly coloured tanks in other aquariums so this would not be my favourite part as it often is.
An area that really surprised me as we progressed through the numerous varied habitats was Antarctica. For some reason I hadn't expected to find penguins underground in the middle of London. This was a very well landscaped area and included real ice, but was way too popular with the crowds, so it was a struggle to see. The viewing area would benefit from being at least twice the size.
The final area begins to bring you back to reality as a long tank with waterfalls splitting various sections represents the Thames and shows the familiar chubb, carp and roache to name but a few that we are used to seeing in our own country. Up a final escalator or lift and you exit through the gift shop, as with most UK tourist attractions.
As well as decor through most areas reflecting the natural environment atmospheric music plays throughout the tour. Temperatures also are appropriate to the needs of the creatures on display. The tropical and jungle areas are right next to each other and I found myself taking off both coat and jumper and still feeling a bit woozy. I needed to drink or I think I may well have been at risk of passing out. I noticed several people suffering similarly and heard comments to the effect that it was a shame there was no fresh air available anywhere. I was mightily relieved when shortly after this we arrived in the chilled Antarctic and I immediately felt much better and could put my layers back on. A specific route is followed around the exhibits so if you do feel ill or need to leave quickly you have to follow the whole cicuit. I had lost my bearings completely inside, as it appears that you keep traversing around the two main tanks and coming to them from different heights and angles.
The website advertises special events throughout the day such as talks about the different species and feeding times. Due to the circulatory nature of the event, although some of these should have been happening at times when we were there we never saw any. It must just be pure luck if you're in the right place at the right time. There was no list of times given out on entry and no loud speaker notices and certainly we didn't see anybody trying to back track. Maybe it was just too busy for them to cope with running these extras and at a quiet time there may be far more interactive opportunities.
After spending the morning walking around London, we needed to use the toilets and were disappointed to find that at the entrance there are only two disabled / baby changing toilets, so had to queue for these. The only proper toilet facilities we saw were quite near to the end of the journey around the aquarium, which did seem a bit silly and I can imagine that this would be an inconvenience for quite a few people. These facilities were all clean and in good condition.
The shop is quite large, but I was pleased to find that it is stocked almost exclusively with relevant aquatic materials including some very nice story books for toddlers and colourful reference materials for the older kids.
The Sea Life Centre has a strict no eating and drinking policy; there really is nowhere inside where there is room to picnic, but following on from the shop you enter the rest of the County Hall attractions which includes a McDonalds, if you're starving, as well as an arcade and bowling alley. As we exited into daylight again I was quite amazed to be confronted with Big Ben immediately ahead; the underground life had felt a million miles away from the realities of London.
Quizzes, notices and petitions throughout the centre draw your attention to the real reason that this attraction exists. It states that their roles are to rescue and rehabilitate sick, injured or orphaned sea creatures and return as many as possible to their natural environments, to raise money for conservation projects, such as a Mediterranean Loggerhead turtle project, to breed endangered species, to help visitors to be aware of marine conservation issues and to campaign and petition governments e.g to ban whaling and reduce by catch. Children's awareness will surely have been well raised after seeing vivid posters and quizzes and I'm sure they'll all know of the risks that carrier bags pose to fish who mistake them for food. I was pleased to be able to sign a couple of pertinent petitions during the visit.
I have mixed feelings about this attraction, part of me knows that its purpose is to raise funds for the conservation of sea life in its natural environment and to educate the general public about the importance of looking after the sea environment but part of me feels as though the creatures here are too confined within their tanks. It is stated though that none of the sealife have been removed from their natural environment to be on display.
We did have a good 2.5 hours in the aquarium and I feel that at a quieter time I would have spent far longer just gazing at the fish and reading notices. I would still recommend it despite the reservations that I have expressed in this review as there is so much to see. If you expreinece claustrophobia or worry excessively about being below ground and the potential safety issues that this could pose, I would definitely avoid this attraction. I feel that the prices are way higher than what I would be prepared for an afternoon only visit and although I appreciate that it has been expensive to salvage this historic river side building and create a tourist attraction and that much of the money is used for good causes, I just could not justify the outlay. With a combined pass it becomes far more acceptable.
Summary: A good way to spend a few hours in London watching marine life, but not suitable for claustrophobics