23 October 2011

Under the Sea at Oceanário de Lisboa

One of the perks of travel is learning about yourself, or something, right? Well - something I've discovered about myself during this trip is that I'm not really a fan of zoos, but I am a big fan of aquariums. Maybe it's because they remind me of my father sitting in front of his salt water tank at home. Maybe it's because I spent way too many hours watching Blue Planet during college. Maybe it's because I secretly want to be a scuba diver. The Oceanário de Lisboa was a particular treat. I mean, look at that incredibly rare, bizarre sun fish. It's the world's largest boney fish - but, more importantly, its fins are all weird! (Sorry, I'm no David Attenborough).
Oceanário was built for the 1998 World's Fair, which was themed "The Oceans, a Heritage for the Future." Lisbon went all out for its hosting gig, erecting this aquarium along with the Vasco da Gama Bridge, Europe's longest at the time. The point was to celebrate Portugal's long oceanic history and also celebrate the 500th anniversary of Vasco da Gama's arrival in India. Oceanário was an immediate hit and remains the most visited place in all of Portugal. I love the building because you literally feel like you're walking out into the ocean. And then you dive in.
The main tank is 180,000 cubic feet, holds about 1.3 million gallons of salt water and is 23 feet deep. The aquarium's rooms are kept pretty dark and entering through the labyrinthine temporary exhibit space is slightly disorienting. One of us may or may not have walked into a wall. There are two floors. So, when you're down looking at the bottom dwellers, pelagic swimmers dart around above your head and vice versa. Throughout, there are walls up to create windows- or frames, really. Information panels describe the fish that tend to hang around in that spot. It's pretty neat, because you get the sense of a curated exhibition within this free flowing environment. You read about the grouper then and here it comes, swimming right into the frame and out again.
There was almost too much to look at. It was like the visual equivalent of surround sound. So, I guess like live Imax? Kooky seahorses and curly-cue anemones. Bright red shrimp and mesmerizing jellyfish. The Portuguese national treasure: bacalhau. There are a series of habitats, a number of smaller tanks aside from the centerpiece one which are devoted to different bodies of water: the North Atlantic, Antarctic, Temperate Pacific and Tropical Indian. Though, keeping with their "One Ocean" design concept, they all feel like they're connected to each other and the sea outside.
In the Antarctic section, were these penguins, born at the aquarium recently. They liked to yelp a lot. Amphibians, birds and a funny sea otter rounded out the non-fish contingent. The otter floated on his back with his "hands" folded on his lap, posing for pictures like a pro. In total, there are about 16,000 animals in the complex. And that's not even counting the piles of plush ones in the gift shop. Have you ever seen a cuddly cotton squid? Well, I have.
Of course, the biggest crowd-pleasers (aside from the sunfish and penguins) were the sharks. It's pretty incredible to feel so close to these creatures. It's even more incredible to see them brush up against a giant manta ray, while little yellow tangs swim around in the foreground and penguins dive into the water overhead. Some scientists criticize the fact that species that would never normally coexist are made to share a habitat at Oceanário. I'd rather be simple-minded and say that I think it's sweet.

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