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Round the World in a Day at Nausicaa Aquarium in Boulogne-sur-Mer

         In November I took a weekend trip across the English Channel to Boulogne-sur-Mer, where I was wonderfully looked after by Claire from Nausicaa Aquarium, and a number of other lovely people such as Antoine from the tourist office and Madame Lefevre at the stables. You can read about my weekend explorations of the area in this blog post but I wanted to dedicate an entire post to the afternoon I spent exploring Nausicaa Aquarium, as it was undoubtedly the highlight of the weekend and truly amazing. I was lucky enough to have a private tour of the aquarium from Claire, who had boundless knowledge of the 1,000 different species of sea animals they have at Nausicaa.

         When you first enter Nausicaa, you are greeted by these hypnotic Aurelia Aurita jelly-fish below which looked rather friendlier than the ones I’m used to seeing wash up on the beach in the south-west of France.

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          From there the aquarium is divided into the different oceans, as each habitat is home to a distinctly different set of intriguing species. What is so brilliant about Nausicaa is the fact that you can travel round the whole world, without even leaving the building! Having Claire on hand to point out the highlights was invaluable, but there is a plethora of information accompanying each of the tanks to teach you about the climate and conditions in each geographical area of the world. Each of the many many tanks exactly replicates the environment in the wild, and is carefully regulated and monitored every day for temperature and pH levels, and some of the tanks even have wave simulators to imitate the flow of water in the wild, like the tank below.

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          This particular tank and the menacing fish inside spooked me (it looks to me like something you’d find in a villain’s lair in a Bond film) but it was fascinating to observe them swim against the current from any angle.

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          I love swimming in the sea, but oddly I don’t actually like eating fish, or going near the fish stalls in a market for instance. So while I loved looking at lots of the fish, some did slightly terrify me too! This enormous octopus below definitely belonged in the ‘terrifying’ category and I couldn’t get over its size!

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          Talking to Claire before I arrived in France, she has asked me what my favourite sea animal was… And it is of course the penguin! I’m not sure there’s anyone alive who doesn’t like penguins. Claire had arranged something very special for my visit and timed it so that we could see the adorable little creatures being fed by their carer. I then got the chance to meet Hélène, the penguin carer, and learn about how she looks after them, her relationship with them and ask her any questions. At Nausicaa they have 10 males and 10 females, and they participate in breeding programmes and exchanges with other aquariums around France. They even have some baby penguins at the moment although they’re still ‘backstage’ until they grow big enough to live in the penguin enclosure.

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        These are African penguins, so they live on sandy beaches rather than on ice, and are a bit smaller than their cousins the Emperor penguins. They zip around the tank so fast, diving and swooping to catch the fish that Hélène throws into the water. The advantage of observing them in an aquarium rather than the wild (here’s my blog post about seeing them in the wild near Cape Town) is that you can witness them underwater thanks to the glass side of the tank.

        We continued our tour of the aquarium and passed into warmer tropical climes. The aquarium currently have a great audiovisual Island Stories Exhibition, which not only highlights the sealife to be found around islands, but also the lifestyles and livelihoods of the islanders and the risk that climate change poses to their environment. Many low-lying islands, like the Maldives for example, are predicted to disappear entirely over the next few decades due to rising sea levels, and Nausicaa is a huge advocate for protecting the oceans and educating their visitors on how to preserve our planet. You can find out more about the various initiatives they participate in at the ‘Take Action‘ section of their website.

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         In one part of the aquarium they have a tropical lagoon, where we came across these tortoises below sunbathing under a palm tree. In the lagoon you can look down into the water and find yourself mesmerised by all the brightly-coloured tropical fish and living coral that they’ve nurtured inside the lagoon. The whole trip was actually very therapeutic and I can understand how people can spend hours simply watching the fish swim around at leisure…

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           On the other side of the lagoon you find the shark tank! Along with the penguin beach, this is one of the most popular parts of the aquarium and I can understand why – sharks fascinate me. Despite my fear of some fish and that particularly creepy octopus above, rather oddly I’m not afraid of sharks. I even went cage-diving with Great White Sharks in South Africa a few weeks ago (here’s my blog post on it). So I adored the shark tank, in which there are 12 different species of shark: leopard sharks, nurse sharks, zebra sharks, sand tiger sharks, sandbar sharks… But in total there are over 140 sharks at Nausicaa!

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         Nausicaa have a number of reptiles including a couple of caimans who were lying absolutely motionless, as if about to pounce on their prey at any minute… Those teeth almost scare me more than those of the sharks, and they do wear a purely evil expression don’t they.

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        On a happier note, in another tank you can play with the Californian sea lions, who will happily swoop and circle around and below you, twirling elegantly and effortlessly through the water. Draw circles on the glass with your hand and a sea lion will even follow it, doing backward flips and showing off, as one did with the man in the photo below.

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         Up above the surface of the sea lion tank they have an open-air Sea Lion show once a day (times vary, you can check on the website) where they show off the various tricks these clever animals have learnt. I had no idea they were quite so clever and I was very impressed at their synchronised leaps, their ability to pair names of shapes with an actual image, and by how close a relationship the trainers have with the sea lions. Throughout the day I had the opportunity to meet and observe a number of the carers at Nausicaa and it is truly a vocation – they don’t simply look after the animals, they nurture them from birth and develop close bonds with the animals.

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          There are so many thousands of different species at Nausicaa and I could have told you about many many more, but decided instead to focus on my personal highlights. One highlight however that I didn’t manage to photograph, because it’s such a rare occurrence and was over in only a few seconds, was this: I’m accustomed to seeing seashells lie on the seabed and do absolutely nothing else. In my experience they simply do not move. However, we were gazing into one tank when one seashell suddenly started to open and close and propelled itself through the water as if it was swimming! I had absolutely no idea that they could actually move, and I was left speechless! Have you ever seen a shell swim through the water??

        If you fancy a trip across the channel then a ticket to Nausicaa is €18.30 for an adult and €11.95 for a child (and it’s even cheaper if you buy online) but do check first by clicking here to see whether Nausicaa is open when you’d like to visit. You’ll need at least half a day to see the whole exhibition and you can get there by P&O Ferries who run a regular service from Dover to Calais.

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