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

France - - Contents -

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:

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