This summer, the world-famous aquarium Nausicaá opened the doors to its hugely extended marine environments. Rudolf Abraham visits to discover how these new tanks will help its conservation endeavours
Discover an exotic underwater world at the sealife centre in Boulogne-sur-mer.
Stéphane Hénard stands at the edge of a huge aquarium tank, watching intently as a young manta ray, which has just been transported from Florida, makes a series of hesitant wing beats at the surface, before regaining its composure and gliding gracefully off through the waters of its new home.
Stéphane is Head of Aquariology at Nausicaá, Centre National de la Mer, which stands on the waterfront in Boulogne-sur-mer and, since opening in 1991, has attracted over 16 million visitors. Over the years, its ‘ Des Rivages et des Hommes’ exhibition (‘Mankind and Shores’) has taken visitors through a breathtaking variety of species and environments, from tropical lagoon and coral reef to mangrove swamp.
In 1999, Nausicaá became the first institution anywhere in the world to be labelled a Centre of Excellence by Unesco’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, in recognition of its work in raising awareness of the marine environment. After all, how often do you get to climb up a ladder and stick your head into a glass dome protruding into the unbelievably colourful world of a coral reef? Or stand on the bridge of a ship in a stomach-churningly convincing simulation of a fully-fledged Atlantic storm? At the same time, a consistent focus is maintained throughout on the relationship between man and the sea, and the sustainability of our oceans.
On 19 May 2018, Nausicaá opened a new chapter when it unveiled a hugely ambitious new extension, which more or less doubled its size, bringing the volume of seawater in its tanks to some
17,000m3 and the number of animals on display to around 58,000. The extension is centred around a new exhibition entitled ‘ Voyage en Haute Mer’ (‘Journey on the High Seas’), the theme of which, as the name implies, is the open oceans – and it offers visitors the opportunity to see and learn more about some of its inhabitants on a scale which is almost unprecedented in an aquarium.
Hidden at the centre of the new extension with its striking bionic architecture, or at least partially obscured until the last moment, is that huge new tank into which manta rays and other species were released in the weeks before its opening. And its size really is jaw-dropping – at 10,000m3 (that’s the size of four Olympic swimming pools), it is the largest aquarium tank in Europe, and among the five largest in the world.
None of these figures really prepare you for its scale, however. Looking through viewing windows as you pass through the new exhibition, it’s large enough that the light and clarity fall off with distance, much as they would if seen from behind a diving mask in the open ocean. Sardines and other fish shimmer by in the distance, not as small clusters of individuals, but as fully-fledged shoals.
The layout takes visitors gradually downwards, through various themed areas and along an 18-metre glass tunnel with windows that never quite show the extent of the tank in its entirety. Until you reach the bottom, that is, and walk out into a darkened room, with a staggeringly large window at one end, constructed from a single sheet of glass, 20 metres wide by 5 metres high. The effect is breathtaking. Hammerhead sharks and other iconic species glide calmly past the tip of your nose, as you crane your neck to try and see the surface.
The technical challenges of creating such a window were huge. The viewing panel, made of a single sheet of methacrylate, is 38 centimetres thick and weighs 54 tonnes. It was prepared and polished by a company in Rome, one of only three in the world with the technical know-how to make such a component, and was transported to Boulogne in 2017 to be slotted in beneath a monumental beam.
ABOVE:The impressive new tank that opened in May this year - the largest in Europe;A feeling of total immersion in the marine world RIGHT: