Water World: The best aquariums in the UK
On our quest to find the very best aquarium in the UK we first thought of asking parents; they’ll know where parking is, or who has the best chicken nuggets. Then we went to the kids - what was their favourite bit, or where has the best playground? But you know what? To really get to the bottom of this slippery issue, we ultimately decided to ask the experts. We sat down with a dolphin, had a tête-à-tête with the turtles and really grilled those penguins, and we’re glad we did! Advice from all over the ocean helped us find a fantastic line-up of aquariums all over the British Isles.
We also - obviously - couldn’t stop at just one aquarium in the UK, so let’s get a waddle on and check out our top 10 best across the country.
Weymouth Sea Life Adventure Park, WeymouthWeymouth is a classic seaside town but the residents of the Weymouth Sea Life Adventure Park come from all walks of life; like the otters who scuttle about on riverbanks or seahorses who hang out amongst colourful coral reef, it’s a wide-ranging wonderland of sea creatures. Get hands-on (or is that fins-on?) in the rockpool, check out one of the feeding demonstrations and make loads of new friends - including the much-misunderstood shark - over a 7-acre site. As you travel across the oceans, be sure to keep an eye out for fellow Ranger, Tyler the Turtle. He’s on an environmental mission and is always ready to share a few fascinating facts.
Best for: Caribbean Cove: their waterpark within a wildlife centre. It’s the only UK aquarium, on this list at least, where you can hop aboard a pirate Galleon and whizz down wild rides in the Splash Zone.
Bristol Aquarium, BristolMeet and greet 1,000s of aquatic creatures over 40 naturally themed displays at the Bristol Aquarium. Which is your kid’s favourite critter? They can take their pick between seahorses, puffer fish, piranhas - the list goes on! We suggest taking a trip to the Bay of Rays to see some of the swooping inhabitants or the underwater tunnel where sharks glide above your head. Don’t worry though, that glass is thick! You could then take a casual vacation to the tropics down by the Coral Seas or battle your way through the Mighty Amazon where the wildest beasts are hidden in the water.
Best for: It’s the only aquarium in the UK that has an enormous botanical house - another two for one. See and smell some of the world’s weirdest flowers and plants, from Jurassic ferns to greedy Venus flytraps.
Oceanarium, BournemouthHave you met Ziggy the green iguana? What about Bob the pig-nose turtle? Introduce yourself to the entire gang at the Oceanarium as well as 150 different species of fish. To guide you on your way, there’s an adventure quiz trail for families which will lead you from the creeps at crocodile rock to the suited and booted chaps at Penguin Cove, via the River Ganges. Where you end up is up to you, just be sure to stop off at the Kids’ Play Zone which has been specially designed with under 10s in mind. That means wobbly walkways and a ‘spring rocker’ penguin.
Best for: Getting up close and uncomfortable with sharks! Not really though as this is a virtual underwater experience where enormous plasma screens and audio-visual effects really make you feel like you’re swimming in the deep, blue sea. There are even interactive touch screens and games to make it feel even more real.
Loch Lomond Aquarium, BallochRather than turtles or seahorses, the name Loch Lomond conjures up other ideas… namely an ancient monster called Nessie. Now that would be a claim to fame - the only aquarium in the UK to house a mythological beast! The reality is just as good at the Loch Lomond Aquarium though with an interactive touch pool, meet and greets with a family of otters and the largest collection of sharks in Scotland. That includes black tip sharks, nurse sharks and one decidedly distinguished fella, Sir Bobby Robson Shark. Hats off! Remember to also swing by the Stingray Discovery exhibit in the Tropical Ocean tank as it’s well worth it.
Best for: A trip through the magnificent Ocean Tunnel. Stroll along while being surrounded by hundreds of technicoloured fish from all over the world. It’s almost like walking on the ocean bed but you get to keep your socks dry.
National Seal Sanctuary, HelstonThe National Seal Sanctuary has lots of the elements you’d expect from an aquarium in the UK; Penguin Beach is great for watching the locals slide around and be silly, while the Pirate Play Area and quiz trail are perfect for getting tiny tots involved. However, all this comes second to their adorable community of seals. As this is a sanctuary, you can meet seals who’ve experienced dramatic rescues and watch as they get back to normal in the Convalescence Pool. The team rescue around 65 seals every year so you’ll have a chance to get to know their individual stories and personalities.
Best for: Sealing the deal! You can get properly up close to the cuddly creatures in one of two underwater viewing areas: Southern Sea Lion Pool and the Seal Rescue Centre. Also, you can see some seriously cute pups at the right time of year who are taught to fish, swim and survive in the wild before being released.
Anglesey Sea Zoo, LlanfairpwllgwyngyllTake a deep dive to the bottom of the Irish Sea at Anglesey Sea Zoo, where conger eels, catsharks and other curious creatures roam. The most memorable character here, however, is one you might not expect: the humble lobster takes centre stage with a specially designed lobster hatchery. It’s been built to help the UK’s dwindling population survive and ultimately thrive and is a great way to get kids interested in environmentalism. Even the smallest person can make a difference!
Best for: Getting to grips with the local wildlife. Feeding displays and interactive sessions are ideal for getting all the facts, and that lobster hatchery really shows tiny yet intrepid explorers that conservation can start at home.
The Scottish Sea Life Sanctuary, ObanThe Scottish Sea Life Sanctuary has 50 fantastic marine displays and every single one is full of fascinating facts and a few intriguing tales. Why not pay a visit to some of the oh so tiny baby turtles? They look like they’ve just travelled out of a scene in Finding Nemo! Then there’s the underwater activity area and an outdoor nature trail where kids can shake off their webbed feet and run around. Chuck in the adventure playground for swinging, sliding and climbing and really, it’s the best of both worlds: dry land and the depths of the ocean.
Best for: While it’s our second aquarium in the UK that specialises in seals, this time you can have breakfast with them! Arrive early to see these cheeky chappies tuck into their fish while you enjoy your own tasty tuck. Fingers crossed it’s not fish.
Living Coasts, TorquayThe team at Living Coasts make sure every seafaring experience has something special about it; take the feeding sessions where archer fish can be found shooting their prey down with a powerful jet of water straight from their mouths. That’s certainly not something you see every day. Then there’s Penguin Beach which has been carefully designed to mimic their original African environment which, admittedly, is more of a treat for the penguins than for you, but still! With a conservation programme and plenty to help mini marine biologists learn, this is a great example of what a UK aquarium should look like.
Best for: The Mysterious Mangroves. The creatures here are even more alien than E.T with four-eyed fish, venomous stingrays and other spooky beings who are only spotted when it’s too late… Just kidding! They are a bizarre bunch though.
Dingle Oceanworld Aquarium, DingleFáilte go Mara Beo an Daingean or, in other words, welcome to the Dingle Oceanworld Aquarium! This is a centre of research in the rural, rolling hills of Kerry and has a veritable ‘kaleidoscopic display’ of marine life to look after. From colourful clownfish to gentle Loggerhead turtles (two of which are called Dylan and Omey, FYI), none of the residents would typically find their home on the coast of Ireland but specialist environments and expert care mean that they thrive here. Travel through the Underwater Tunnel, get handsy in the touch pool or take a break at the Tropical Reef.
Best for: Throwing on your thinking caps! The team here are all about education so by the end of your visit you’ll be well and truly stuffed with fun facts, for example, seahorses have the head of a horse, the tail of a monkey and it's the male who has the babies!
The Deep, HullHome to the UK’s only pair of Green sawfish, 3,500 other finned friends and an incredibly diverse mix of deep-sea beasties, The Deep is one of the biggest and best aquariums in the UK. It’s also pretty high tech with a walkthrough viewing tunnel, interactive stations and the Lagoon of Light where you’ll travel past sharks and rays. It goes the whole hog though (what’s the sea equivalent of a hog? A manatee?) when it comes to the Endless Ocean Exhibit. Ride their famous glass lift through 10m of, seemingly, open ocean. The view is honestly spectacular.
Best for: You know in gangster films when they say ‘Sleeping with the fishes’? Well, this is like that, but not in a terrifying way! Instead, kids can come for sleepover sessions where they actually get to snooze alongside sharks, rays and other species for a night. We hear it’s amazing.
As our friends from the Pixar universe would say, ‘Just keep swimming’ and we suggest you do just that by diving into one of our aquarium reviews - Blue Reef Aquarium, National Marine Aquarium or Bristol Aquarium - or by exploring another aquarium in the UK, or three, using the links below. If you don’t we might just get a little… crabby!