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Aquariums have come a long way since the first SEA LIFE centre opened its doors on the banks of picturesque Loch Creran in the West Highlands of Scotland in 1979.
Back then, most dealt exclusively with tropical fish, invariably housed in small oblong tanks either side of gloomy, oblong rooms, like animated paintings in a gallery.
Oban SEA LIFE…now the Scottish SEA LIFE Sanctuary…broke the mould.
Its displays are a variety of shapes and sizes. Some feature two or more windows, some reach only waist height providing views both through the water and from above its gently rippling surface.
The centrepiece is a massive circular display like a giant doughnut. Visitors marvel at a shimmering shoal of silvery herring in perpetual circuit of this amazing tank, watching from outside the ring or from a platform in the centre. A waist high ray display was another innovation, offering the novel spectacle of rays nosing the surface to watch visitors watching them!
In 1979 there was not a tropical fish to be found. Instead the Oban displays teemed with creatures from the seas around Britain. People were astonished by their variety.
The instant popularity of the Oban centre proved the catalyst for rapid growth of the aquarium industry, with SEA LIFE centres springing up on every coastline…and eventually in the heart of Britain’s second city.
Walk through the tubular ocean tunnel at the National SEA LIFE Centre, Birmingham, and you will appreciate just how far aquarium design and technology has progressed.
Now it is easy to imagine that it is you who are on display to the myriad creatures that surround you.
As the SEA LIFE network spread its tentacles across Europe the company behind the enterprise concentrated initially on opening a window to our native seas, providing a dramatic glimpse of a watery world which exceeded the wildest imaginings of most visitors.
“It was a world hitherto seen by only experienced scuba divers,” explained SEA LIFE’s senior marine biologist Rob Hicks, who made his career choice when aged just six and watching Jaques Cousteau on television.
“Fishermen were of course aware of the wide range of life in our seas, but even they could only guess at what the habitat, way beneath their rolling decks, actually looked like.”
SEA LIFE displays faithfully recreate those habitats, from tide-ravaged rock-pools, beds of eel-grass and sandy shallows to dark rocky sub-marine caves and the icy deep.
Behind the scenes, hi-tech’ filtration systems labour to keep the water crystal clear. At some centres water is drawn direct from the sea, and carefully filtered before entering the tanks.
Visitors were agog, stunned to discover that creatures like the slender pipefish,,,relative of the seahorse…are abundant in European seas and that the colourful cuckoo wrasse can undergo a sex-change.
They were amazed to see the varieties of rays populating our own marine world, from the sharp-spined thornback to the intricately patterned undulate ray.
The news that a starfish can shed a leg and then grow another, was a startling revelation for many.
Visitors would greet with frank disbelief the information that an octopus can change colour and grow spikes in the blink of an eye, and that its blue blood is pumped around its body by no fewer than three hearts.
Yet increasingly, for the SEA LIFE team, merely raising awareness of our rich and diverse native marine world was no longer enough.
Gradually, the network extended its activities into the fields of conservation and research.
The Oban attraction began a busy rescue, rear and release programme for stray, sickly and abandoned common seals pups as early as 1982. Seal rescue is now an important function of both the Scarborough SEA LIFE and Marine Sanctuary and the Blankenberge SEA LIFE Centre.
In 1991 SEA LIFE helped organise the return to the wild of performing dolphins Missie and Silver, the pair having spent 30 years at the Brighton Dolphinarium.
They were flown to the Turks and Caicos islands where they spent six months re-learning the art of catching food for themselves and building their strength and stamina, before being freed in the Caribbean.
There is now an underwater tunnel in the tank which once housed Missie and Silver. Here at what is now Brighton SEA LIFE centre visitors can watch Jersey the loggerhead turtle; Lulu the green turtle, and a school of black-tipped reef sharks.
Both turtles came from an aquarium which could no longer provide these huge beasts with suitably spacious accommodation.
Having already spent decades in captivity, a return to the wild was not viable in their case.
There have been loggerhead turtles stranded around the UK coast, however, which – after being brought back from the brink of death by dedicated SEA LIFE staff – have eventually returned to the open ocean.
There was Picasso more than a decade ago at Oban, later released in the Azores; Shelley - washed up at Fleetwood and cared for at Blackpool and Weymouth before getting a lift to freedom via Gran Canaria; and most recently there was Myrtle.
Myrtle stranded on North Uist…minus a flipper, presumably lost to a shark…hypothermic, badly dehydrated, barely alive.
Her miraculous recovery at the Scottish SEA LIFE Sanctuary was followed by a spot of stamina building at Scarborough. Myrtle was freed from a beach in Gran Canaria in May 2006.
SEA LIFE has funded vital field projects and hosted exhibitions, fund-raising events and press conferences to help wildlife charities draw attention to particular marine conservation issues.
Its environmental arm SOS (Save Our Seas) has been responsible for a series of high profile petitions delivered to the EU urging protective legislation for sea turtles, sharks, whales and dolphins and commercial fish stocks.
SOS has recently launched a fundraising appeal to try and help finance a much-needed turtle rescue facility on the Greek island of Zakynthos, and raised a petition calling for long-line fisheries to employ a new kind of hook which doesn’t catch turtles.
If there is one activity above all others that sets SEA LIFE apart from the rest of the aquarium industry, however, it is perhaps its work on the breeding of seahorses.
Seahorses have provided one of SEA LIFE’s biggest success stories of recent years.
The Weymouth-based seahorse breeding programme begun in 1995 is the most successful in the world. Its advice on husbandry and diet is sought by other aquaria worldwide.
“By helping others to breed their own seahorses, even providing them with stock, we also reduce the temptation for them to source stock from the wild,” said Rob Hicks.
“Our own seahorse exhibitions across Europe also discourage home-aquarium enthusiasts from trying to obtain seahorses by stressing the near impossibility of providing adequate care in a home environment.”
The ten species successfully bred and reared in Weymouth include some other notable firsts, amongst them the Indonesian zebra-snouted seahorse Hippocampus barbouri.
Other species like the Australian big-bellied seahorse, the slender seahorse from the Caribbean and the yellow seahorse from the Pacific, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, have also bred prolifically.
So successful has the programme been, that Weymouth opened the National Seahorse Breeding and Conservation unit in 2003.
So many baby seahorses have already been reared there that satellite breeding facilities have now been set up at the National SEA LIFE centre, Birmingham, the Scottish SEA LIFE Sanctuary in Oban, and the SEA LIFE centres in Great Yarmouth, Blankenberge, Konigswinter, Oberhausen, Nurnberg and Scheveningen.
The SEA LIFE network has gradually also introduced displays featuring marine life from tropical seas, and in the process increased awareness of, and support, for marine conservation goals in more exotic locations and in many cases…of global importance.
By the end of 2006 there were a total of 22 SEA LIFE centres in a network that stretches from Helsinki, Finland to Benalmadena in southern Spain and from Bray, Ireland to Dresden in eastern Germany.
SEA LIFE centres are owned and operated by the Merlin Entertainments Group, which from headquarters in Poole, Dorset, England also owns and operates the London Dungeon and four sister Dungeons; the four LEGOLAND theme parks; the National Seal Sanctuary in Cornwall plus Oban and Hunstanton SEA LIFE Sanctuaries; the Aquatica water park in Milan; science-based attraction Earth Explorer in Belgium….and more!