on February 20, 2012
The Sea Life Centre is located on the London’s Southbank, in the old County Hall building, next to the London Eye. Westminster Tube station is 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 on a Sunday in the school holidays and found a very short queue inside the building but s we left at 3.00 there was a line forming outside, but still not too long. The centre caters well for wheelchair and pushchair users and two lifts offer an alternative to the stairs as you dive down into the basement to begin your trip. The entire experience is below ground. I found this quite scary and my main negative feelings about the aquarium stem from the fact that it was below ground with no natural light or air. It felt 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 emergency exits, which fortunately occurred regularly. I know this building must have passed stringent health and safety inspections, 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 around the ocean environments of the world with aquariums of various sizes. The first aquariums are 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 impressed. I think it’s probably the largest such tank I’ve seen and includes a model skeleton of an 80 foot whale as part of the habitat for the vast numbers of fish. 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 I’ve visited. I could have stood and watched the Rays, sharks, giant turtle and countless other species for hours, but it was crowded so there was always pressure to move along and let the next person in.The other large tank holds species native to the Pacific Ocean. This tank was 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. Three huge traditional looking sharks swim in this tank along with a tiger shark and many smaller fish. Computer screens by each exhibit show the species it contains. 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 ages and with large crowds this wasn’t possible. I have to say that I was more interested in watching the fish swim than taking in lots of factual information. If that’s what you like though it’s there, but you have to be patient.Other environments that you pass through on the journey, are the jungle section containing crocodile and terrapins and a tropical area with coral reefs and beautiful bright coloured smaller fish, which attracted the younger children as they spotted ‘Nemo’ and ‘Dori’ 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. 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 twice the size. The final area begins to bring you back to reality as a long tank represents the Thames and shows the familiar chubb, carp and roache that we are used to seeing in the UK. 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 next to each other and I found myself taking off both coat and jumper and still feeling woozy. I heard comments that it was a shame there was no fresh air available anywhere. I was relieved when shortly after this we arrived in the chilled Antarctic. A specific route is followed around the exhibits. Therefore if you feel ill or need to leave quickly you have to follow the whole circuit. The website advertises special events throughout the day such as talks 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.**Facilities**At the entrance there are only two disabled / baby changing toilets, so we had to queue for these. The only proper toilet facilities we saw were near to the end of the journey, and I can imagine that this would inconvenience quite a few people. These facilities were 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 no eating and drinking policy but there is a McDonalds right outside.**Conservation**Quizzes, notices and petitions throughout the centre draw attention to the real reason this attraction exists. 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, to breed endangered species, to help visitors to be aware of marine conservation issues and to campaign and petition governments. Children’s awareness will 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. It is stated though that none of the sealife have been removed from their natural environment to be on display.We had a good 2.5 hours in the aquarium and I feel that at a quieter time I would have spent far longer 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 experience claustrophobia to any extent or worry excessively about being below ground and the potential safety issues that this could pose, I would avoid this attraction. The prices are way higher than I would be prepared to pay 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 with other Merlin group attractions, as we had, it becomes more acceptable. Although a large aquarium I have found that the Brighton Sea Life Centre which I also visited in school holidays was less busy and there is more opportunity to learn from talks and interact with the animals.
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