In August, we escaped the dessicating heat of Brest, in Brittany, France, and visited Océanopolis, a large aquarium based on the harbour, close to the city centre.
Aquariums are good places to visit with children when the weather’s cold and wet, but for us Océanopolis’ cool, hushed interior was a welcome change from the blistering sunshine. It’s a popular place: the aquarium opened in 1990 and welcomed its tenth million visitor back in 2014. Despite the churn of people through the doors, the only time we felt a little crowded was at the entrance to the Tropical Pavilion, where people were clustered around a couple of portholes to gaze down into the 17-metre shark tanks, to spot the bull sharks, zebra sharks, whitetips and others of the seven species housed there.
My top tip would be not to bother battling crowds to try and look through the portholes. There are plenty of other opportunities to see the sharks in the rest of the Tropical Pavilion. This is the most impressive section of Océanopolis, thoughtfully set out with plenty of viewing windows and a lift that takes you on an eerie journey down through the French Polynesian atoll shark tank, so you can watch the creatures swimming above your heads.
The sharks share their tank with other species, including rays and saw fish with noses longer than a giant’s arm. In the Tropical Pavilion you can walk through a mangrove swamp, gaze at neon-bright live coral from New Caledonia and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and look into a tank in the Caribbean area devoted to endemism, or very slow evolution. That’s where we came across the grand old sea turtle in the picture below, who meandered pondorously along through the water, winking at us and slowly waving his fins.
You can see the turtle, and a few sharks, in this little video clip:
Just as eye-catching as the larger species were the smaller, colourful fish. Our six- and four-year old watched butterflyfish, angelfish, parrotfish, batfish, damselfish and surgeonfish all darting around merrily in their own little mini-ecosystems. Aquariums are relaxing places for family visits. Children are like cats; they’re drawn to rapidly moving, bright creatures, and a large tank full of the things is a good way to keep them still for a while.
But as well as the fish, sharks, rays and turtle there were more treasures to see, like freshwater and sea otters; Océanopolis is the first place in France to have otters from Alaska. In the Polar Pavilion there are King, Gentoo and Rockhopper penguins, and seals. You can watch them grappling with each other to be first in line at feeding time. As with the sharks, there are a few different viewing areas for the ringed and harp seals, who live in a 1000m tank which includes an ice floe with Norwegian style mock-huts.
Océanopolis’ home of Brest is in Finistère, the most westerly tip of France and an area with a strong connection with the sea. Fishing has always been a strong industry there, and the coastline is dotted with small islands (on of which, the Glénan Archipelago, we also visited on this trip). The Temperate Pavilion is devoted to the rich flora and fauna of Brittany’s coastal area, and includes a kelp forest, an Iroise Sea tank with ray, turbot and lobster, and a touch pool, where you can handle starfish, sea urchins and scallops. (Note: the Temperate Pavilion is closed for refurbishment until Feb 2017).
Océanopolis is well set-up for family visitors, with a large shop, restaurants, a small outdoor play park and a picnic area where we ate goat’s cheese sandwiches under the shelter of coconut-matting umbrellas. In the picnic area there was also an intriguing row of (locked) beach huts, whose purpose we never quite got to the bottom of. One regret was that our children don’t speak French, as the Biodiversity Pavilion including a fun-looking interactive adventure trail led by a bright yellow crustacean called Cyclops; but unfortunately they didn’t run session in English.
Although we managed to see most of Océanopolis in the few hours we were there, we would return, as it was a lot to take in on just one visit. Océanopolis is very close to Brest’s beach, and Finistère in general has plenty to offer families; I’ve posted about it here. To reach Finstère, there are ferries from the UK to Roscoff, St Malo and other French ports. Brest has its own airport, as do other nearby cities. The Eurostar also runs trains to Paris, where you can get connecting services.
Opening times for Océanopolis vary according to season, and it is closed from Sunday 1st January to Monday 23rd January 2017. We worked in collaboration with Brittany Tourism and were given tickets to Océanopolis for this post. Children under three are free, and ticket prices vary, with a reduced price in operation while the Temperate Pavilion is closed.
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