Pork Belly could spend ages just looking at fish. He finds them so serene and says if you sit they will come.
That’s probably why we spent more than four hours on our last visit to Brighton’s Sea Life Centre. I’m guessing most folk are in and out within two.
Bobbing along, bobbing along on the bottom of the beautiful briny sea
Bedknobs and Broomsticks
On a Monday morning in term-time it’s a peaceful place; the customers are mainly families with pre-schoolers, gaping open mouthed at the giant rays, sharks and sea turtles, having minor heebie-jeebies in the awesome walk-through tunnel and squealing “Nemo” and “Dory” delightedly in the new Secrets of the Reef display.
Actually, scratch that, it was mainly the parents exclaiming, but you get the picture.It’s a great place on a rainy day at the seaside, or to escape from the blistering sun (yes I know that rarely happens in England) with the perfect combination of entertainment and education.
The displays are designed by Sea Life’s aquarists to balance the needs of the animals (who come first) and what the public wants to see.
Breed, rescue, protect
It’s all a far cry from when I used to visit as a child. In those days it was a dolphinarium and I admit it was pretty amazing to see those beautiful creatures turn tricks in front of my eyes (don’t judge me, it was the sixties when sea-life conservation and animal welfare weren’t so high on everyone’s agenda). But in 1991 the last two remaining dolphins Missy and Silver were released into the wild and a new style of attraction was born.
Now the ethos is Breed, Rescue and Protect with centres around the country housing marine life that has been stranded, injured or mistreated.
Brighton doesn’t have the facilities to take on mammals like seals but does house rescued terrapins and exotic fish that have outgrown their owners’ aquariums. Just like puppies, tiny fish can sometimes grow into monsters who need half a house to live in.
And they are active in breeding programmes for sharks, rays, the endangered Bangai Cardinals, seahorses and pipefish.
The whole building has undergone a makeover too. My memories are of somewhere dark, dank and a bit musty smelling. Now the old Victorian arches are gently illuminated in rainbow colours (LED to be energy efficient), the café has moved to a more central location and there are fun and interactive displays alongside the more traditional tanks.
Everywhere there are entertaining and informative staff, ready to answer your questions and encourage you to find out more.
Hands-on is not an easy thing when the welfare of fish is the highest priority and visitors are asked not to bang on the glass, use flash photography or touch the rays who come so beguilingly up to the surface to greet you.
But in the rock-pool area you can gently stroke a starfish (it feels like sandpaper) and touch the tendrils of a sea anemone (gelatinous like those gloopy jelly toys kids love to play with). They will react, delicately clumping around your finger or sliding away, but show no signs of distress. Their public appearances are strictly limited – two starfish are brought out to the rock pool every two hours, and the previous two taken back behind the scenes, where they rest for three days before being put on display again.
The main pool is where you can see the green sea turtles, sharks and giant ray being fed at regular intervals and hear about their lives both in captivity and the wild.
Walking through the Ocean Tunnel gets you up close and personal to these magnificent sea creatures and the mini-tunnel in the reef section is a big hit with youngsters.
This was also my favourite area. I loved reading about the innovative work to restore the coral reefs in the seas around the Maldives and it seemed a perfect project, balancing the needs of local people with the desire to keep our oceans alive.
New for 2017 is the Claws exhibition, just before you exit through the gift shop, replacing the old Jurassic Seas collection.
The tanks display a range of crustaceans from the home grown (and slightly vicious) velvet swimming crab to the exotic and long-limbed Japanese spider crabs.
A gloriously coloured painted lobster shyly peeps from his underwater cavern.
The extraordinary peacock mantis shrimp, with ballistic front beaters that move so fast they actually boil the water around its prey, lurks behind brilliant white rocks.
And there are the beautiful Violet Land Hermit Crabs living companionably in their borrowed shells. They’re nimble climbers so stay a while and before long you’ll see one slowly emerge and explore the tank’s amazing jungle gym.
The conservation message is all around you, but presented in a family friendly way, inviting you to take small steps to make our seas a cleaner, better place. If the attraction can generate a little bit of empathy in every visitor who then goes away and makes one change, no matter how small, then it has to be worth it.
One thing to note, outside the Centre in Brighton there’s a display board advertising the Giant Pacific Octopus as an attraction. We saw this as we left and dived back in (pun intended) to look for it, thinking we’d missed it. Unfortunately that exhibit was removed to Paris in January 2015 and the octopus himself moved to the Sea Life Centre in Birmingham.
There is a tiny octopus on display in Brighton, just before the Secrets of the Reef section, but she’s a master of disguise and you’ll be hard put to spot her.
But if you’re prepared to sit and wait, as Pork Belly was, those inquisitive fish will come and stare at you, while you stare at them, pressing their little noses up against the glass.
7 things you can do to protect our seas
- Recycle as much plastic as possible
- Don’t buy beauty products that contain plastic microbeads
- Take your litter home from the beach (and pick up any you see)
- Do your washing at 30 degrees
- Don’t leave the tap running while you clean your teeth
- Don’t leave your TV on standby
- Use low energy or LED lighting
Additional photos supplied by Julia Claxton and the Sea Life Centre.
Disclaimer: We were let loose in the Sea Life Centre in Brighton for free, and had a great time.
More information about Sealife
The Sea Life Centre Brighton website