Rupert Parker gets up close with the fish in Boulogne in one of Europe’s largest aquariums.
Situated right on the seafront in Boulogne, Nausicaá is France’s National Sea Centre and is one of the largest aquariums in Europe. You’ll find a staggering 58,000 animals under its roof. It started life as a casino before Boulogne’s mayor decided the town needed an aquarium. Construction started in 1987 and it opened its doors in May 1991.
Success led to a major expansion in 1998 which doubled its size and added 10,000 animals, including California sea lions, and a tropical lagoon village with sharks and coral reefs. In 2018 it grew again with a large exhibit “The High seas” including a huge 10 million litre tank for pelagic fish. New for 2020 is “Into the Eye of the Climate”, an immersive 3D virtual image show which takes you through the challenges raised by climate change.
As I climb the wide steps to the entrance, there’s still something of the casino feel about the design of this impressive building. However, I’m soon forgetting the chips as I get closer to the fish. I pass an impressive cylinder full of balletic jellyfish before entering the “Island Stories” exhibition. I see colourful reef fauna, pig-nosed turtles, carpet sharks, epaulette sharks, laced morays. With audiovisuals, the islanders tell their story and talk about the conservation challenges they’re facing.
Next, I’m taken on a grand tour of the world’s seas, with emphasis on the major challenges to preserve natural heritage while safeguarding economic development. First is the Mediterranean, with groupers, seahorses, moray eels, and plant species that are endangered by mass tourism.
Then I’m into something more local – Côte d’Opale, the rocky foreshore between here and Calais, and see cod, crabs and langoustines. The Californian tank is next, with its kelp forest, leopard sharks, smooth-hounds and Garibaldi damselfish. After the mangrove swamp, I’m soon in the tropical lagoon with colourful corals and a hundred species of fish darting around.
The highlight, though is the huge open sea tank, inhabited by sandbar sharks, sand tiger sharks and nurse sharks, patrolling among shoals of fish including big swimmers – yellowtail snappers and bluefin trevallies with loggerhead sea turtles ambling through. No fewer than 20,000 fish live here. An 18m glass curving underwater tunnel allows you to see all these creatures swimming all around you.
If you want to get up close and touch, there’s an open tank where pollack, cod, catsharks, turbot and rays swim right in front of your eyes. The rays, in particular, don’t seem to mind children reaching out to stroke them although I wouldn’t be too keen on making contact with the catsharks. Another attraction for children is the sea lion reserve, basking in the sun in their reconstructed habitat between cliffs and wooden buildings.
It’s easy enough to spend the whole day being entranced by these sea creatures and, as well as seeing the feeding, there’s also a special behind the scenes tour. What I like about it is the urgent emphasis on defending marine environments with the message that oceans, climate and human life are all closely intertwined. If this all sounds overtly preachy, don’t worry – you won’t realise that you’re being educated until you go outside and realise how important it is to conserve marine environments for future generations.
Tell Me More About Nausicaa
Nausicaá is just 2.5 hours from Paris, London and Brussels.
Boulevard Sainte-Beuve, 62 200 Boulogne-sur-mer
Pas-de-Calais Tourisme has information about the region.
Eurostar runs from St Pancras International to Lille and the local train to Boulogne takes another hour.
Hotel La Matelote is a classy establishment with Michelin-starred food in Boulogne, just opposite Nausicaá.