In May 2018 it’ll have been 20 years since the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth first opened its doors. The aquarium draws in 300,000 visitors a year and is home to the largest tank in the UK (of the fish variety…if you’re after big military tanks then you should check out The Tank Museum in Dorset!).
This Easter we decided to pay our first visit.
The first part of the aquarium is called Plymouth Sound, and it isn’t just the name that establishes the aquarium within its setting. A huge window sits above the main tank in the room. The views out across the harbour and to the Sound beyond make it seem as if the tank and sea run into one another. It’s a great reminder of the link between aquarium and ocean. This was also our first look at some of the creatures in the aquarium, and there were a couple of volunteers on hand to tell us more. After catching a scheduled talk about the resident octopus we continued on to the first of the large tanks.
The British Coasts section of the aquarium is dominated by an enormous tank, with floor to ceiling views and theatre-style seating. There was plenty of exhibition space around the tank, with information about the coastlines of the UK and the importance of marine conversation. However, much like a kid on Christmas day we were wowed by the big shiny box waiting for us and headed fairly swiftly for the tank.
We visited during the Easter holidays and even though the aquarium was busy the enormity of the tank meant we still had a front row view and it was mesmerising watching all the different species of fish.
The theatre seating means that once you’re done staring in wonder by the tank you can get comfy and relax while you watch the underwater world go by from a distance.
The National Marine Aquarium’s flagship tank (and the largest in the UK) is in the Atlantic Ocean zone. Enroute we stopped to look at the different species of jellyfish, which I’ve always found mesmerising, even if a little terrifying. After that it was straight to the big tank…and it sure was big!
The layout of the aquarium means that you actually approach the tank from a few different perspectives. When you first enter, the tank is on three sides of you, with a glass floor and ceiling and an open wall to your left. This is also where the majority of the aquarium’s ‘big hitters’ are, with sharks, giant rays and a sea turtle all inhabiting the Atlantic Ocean tank.
It’s quite a surreal experience having sharks gliding gracefully a few feet above your head and its hard not to stand gawping at the sight. We were equally taken with the rays which seemed to sit and watch us just as we watched them.
As we followed the route round to the side of the tank, a sunken plane revealed itself, with sea animals swimming all around it. This was also where we got our first look at the beautiful sea turtle.
The final perspective on the Atlantic Ocean tank sees you going upstairs and looking both down and into the tank, which curves overhead. Again it feels like an incredibly tranquil spot, with the tank filling your view and the curved roof of the tank creating an immersive experience.
When we were there, family groups were sat on the floor looking up in wonder at the seemingly enormous sharks and rays swimming only a few feet away. And it’s very easy to lose yourself in the scale of the tank, with water as far as you can see.
The final section of the National Marine Aquarium is devoted to tropical fish, and though not as large as the sharks or rays, we found them equally captivating. The bright colours of tropical fish and the mesmerising ripple of sea anemones made for an exotic spectacle, culminating in one final large tank. Here there was another seating area to watch the shoals of colourful fish swimming together before we made our exit.
Entry to the aquarium is by a pass, which allows you to revisit as many times as you like within twelve months. We went for the standard pass, which doesn’t allow re-entry on bank holidays, but if that’s a big concern for you then there is a priority pass, which allows you to go back on any day the aquarium is open.
We liked the idea of the pass and will definitely aim to go back on our next trip to Plymouth. There was a lot to see and whilst we spent a good amount of time looking at all the animals we barely scratched the surface on the exhibits and information boards.
Events at the National Marine Aquarium
We visited on a standard day and so other than listening to the octopus talk and watching one of the feedings we had a pretty standard visitor experience. A quick glance at the aquarium website, however, reveals that there are regular events that are anything but ordinary. As well as the option of an aquarium wedding there are also superhero and princess parties and sleepovers with the sharks. We were also really impressed to see the aquarium advertising Quiet at the Aquarium days: for families with sensory needs to explore without the usual crowds and in a quiet environment.
The Barbican and Sutton Harbour
The aquarium is located in the attractive surrounds of the Barbican. When we visited, the Sutton Harbour footbridge linking the aquarium with the Barbican was closed, but that gave us a good excuse to walk around the harbour. There’s also the Barbican ferry as another scenic option for reaching the aquarium.
The Barbican is a great spot for food or a few drinks and there are also some interesting shops and galleries. So if you’re visiting from further afield then save some time to explore.
Find out more about visiting the National Marine Aquarium, including opening times, admission prices and a schedule of events.
Find out more about Plymouth’s Barbican waterfront.