In August, we escaped the heat of Brest, in Brittany, France, and visited Océanopolis, a large aquarium based on the harbour, close to the city centre.
If you’re looking for things to do with kids when it’s raining, aquariums are good places to visit. 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. And for us Océanopolis’ cool, hushed interior was a welcome change from the blistering French sunshine. It’s one of the more popular places to visit in France. The aquarium opened in 1990, and welcomed its tenth million visitor in 2014.
How busy is Océanopolis Brest?
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.
Tropical Pavilion at Océanopolis
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:
Species of fish at Océanopolis
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.
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.
Polar Pavilion at Océanopolis
In the Polar Pavilion You’ll find 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.
Local marine life
Océanopolis’ home town 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 in Finistère. 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.
Places to eat at Océanopolis
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.
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.
How to get to Océanopolis
To reach Finistère, there are ferries from the UK to Roscoff, St Malo and other French ports. We travelled with Brittany Ferries on this trip, and you can read about what to expect from the ferry line here. Brest has its own airport, as do other nearby cities. The Eurostar also runs trains to Paris, where you can catch connecting services.
How much to tickets for Océanopolis cost?
Opening times for Océanopolis vary according to season. In the spring, the French aquarium opens at 9.30am and closes at 6pm. Children under three are free, and ticket prices vary. You can get up-to-date information on pricing and opening hours on the Océanopolis website.
We worked in collaboration with Brittany Tourism and were given tickets to Océanopolis for this post.
You might be interested in these other things to do in Brittany, and places to stay in Finistère:
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