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Posted on Wed 09 Aug 2023
If I was in any doubt about the ongoing appeal of the National Sea Life Centre, then the hum of people in the foyer and ‘pre-bookings only’ sign posted at the entrance on the day of my visit soon put paid to that. The venue near Brindleyplace has been one of Birmingham’s most popular visitor attractions since it opened nearly 30 years ago, and for good reason – in a landlocked city it’s a fascinating opportunity to experience the underwater world that’s easily as much fun (actually far more fun) than it is educational.
The venue is home to, deep breath (no pun intended), more than 60 displays of freshwater and marine life, over 2,000 creatures, a one-million litre ocean tank and the UK’s only 360-degree Ocean Tunnel. The latter is the busiest and arguably most popular section of the attraction, offering close-up views of a variety of marine life including sharks, rays and a giant sea turtle, swimming above, below and all around you. The venue describes it as ‘walking through the sea’, and it’s a genuinely jaw-dropping experience as well as mildly disorientating – a couple of people near me pushed on ahead rather than marvel like the rest of us – but worth the entrance fee alone.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The tunnel comes towards the end of what is effectively a one-way tour – a bit like going to Ikea but with fish not furniture –which lasts up to two hours depending on how much you dawdle, and there’s lots to see along the way.
Highlights include the kaleidoscope of colour that is the Clownfish Kingdom tunnel, Shark Lagoon’s curious-looking zebra shark, and a rescue Marine Mammal facility that houses the UK’s only sea otters, named Ola and surprise, surprise, Ozzy. My 14-year-old companion Flo and I only saw the latter during our visit, and were instantly smitten by his furry face and exquisitely laidback demeanour. Maybe he had something in common with the Black Sabbath star – whose bridge we’d crossed earlier in the day – after all. More even than the similarly christened heavy metal bull that greeted our arrival at New Street Station.
Flo enjoyed the mechanical but definitely preferred the aquatic version. “The thing I most liked at the Sea Life Centre was seeing Ozzy the otter while he was floating around on his back in his enclosure,” she told me. “I also liked seeing the penguins swimming up to look at us… while we were looking at them.”
The adorable colony of gentoo penguins are another undoubted highlight of the aquarium, particularly when frolicking in the freezing waters of their Antarctic landscape or swimming up to the glass to check out their audience. Not all are so comfortable with the interaction, but it’s an aversion to water rather than people that prevents them doing so – a recent batch of new chicks, easily spotted by their fluffy white feathers, need to stay on dry land while they wait for their darker waterproof plumage to develop.
The penguins are among the first and last things you’ll enjoy on your visit – just before the exit there are viewing windows offering a glimpse below the water line – and younger guests might also snag some swag before departing, as the venue is running a treasure hunt, complete with pirates, during the summer holidays. And if that sounds like old-fashioned fun, then there’s a brand-new hi-tech offering too, in the shape of a virtual reality experience, where you can put on a headset, strap into a pod and enjoy ocean adventures in the form of the underwater documentary Flight of the Mantas or animated eco-tale A Mermaid’s Quest. Both make for equally impressive viewing, but neither last particularly long given the additional fee needed to enjoy them.
That additional cost aside, a visit to the Sea Life Centre is a genuinely fabulous as well as good-value experience – particularly via Merlin passes or the discount tickets that are readily available (often on cereal packets) – and one that me and Flo decided would be a splash hit (pun definitely intended) with any family.
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