on January 2, 2010
Considering the seminal importance of the sea to the Portuguese, it is singularly appropriate that the centerpiece attraction of Lisbon’s Park of Nations (the old Expo ’98 site) is this marvelous aquarium, the largest in Europe. Even if you don’t generally go to aquaria, it’s worth visiting to see some of the creatures that appear regularly on Portuguese dinner plates in a set of two-storey tanks that offer a surprisingly good imitation of their natural environment. Although it is entered via an administration building that contains interactive temporary exhibits and the inevitable gift shop, the Oceanarium itself is in a separate building that sits on pilings in the water that was designed by American architect Peter Chermayeff. The upper portion is largely glass from land looks like a giant greenhouse because of its Indian Ocean rainforest exhibit (which also offers nice views out over the park.)The literal heart of the aquarium is a 7 million liter saltwater tank that represents the Atlantic Ocean. Inside swim many types of fish you’ve heard of (and possibly eaten) and a number you haven’t – what makes it particularly impressive is that there are sufficient numbers of some species that they actually swim in schools. (Quite how they make sure the different species don’t eat each other – especially the sharks – is something of a mystery to me.) It’s hard to pick out favorites, but I did find the rays and bizarre looking sunfish particularly impressive. There are various displays, including free-flying birds and mammals, located in other saltwater tanks that are attached to the Atlantic tank, representing other parts of the Atlantic, and the Pacific, Indian, and Southern Ocean. While the Indian Ocean section offers a rainforest, my favorite was the Pacific Ocean section, which features two adorable and very lively sea otters named Amalia (as in Portugal’s greatest fado singer) and Eusebio (as in its greatest footballer). While I had been very excited to see a penguin exhibit that was not behind glass (as they are usually kept), I actually found the penguins on display rather depressing since they were squeezed into an improbably small space and were swimming around in circles as though in some sort of aquatic prison exercise yard. It’s the only bad thing I have to say about the place. Fortunately, it appears from seeing them from the lower story that they have ample room to swim (or is it fly?) underwater and there are several places to observe their amusing antics. As should be apparent from this review, the Oceanarium certainly brought out the kid in me, and regardless of your age, will likely do so for you as well. I thought the €11 admission was in this sense, a small price to pay for a visit to this hugely enjoyable aquarium and its emotional fountain of youth.
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