The world’s most immersive aquariums

Eleanor Crowte
Eleanor Crowte

First developed by the Romans, aquariums offer the chance to get up close to extraordinary aquatic animals without diving deep into the seas ourselves. Below are seven that have embraced
 a conservationist’s mindset

L’Oceanogràfic

Valencia, Spain

Inside the cultural complex La Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències (the City of Arts and Sciences) is L’Oceanogràfic, the largest aquarium of its kind in Europe. The spectacular building was designed by renowned architects Santiago Calatrava and Félix Candela, with a lily-like roof reminiscent of the white, arching wings of the Sydney Opera House. In it you will find more than 45,000 marine creatures, from walruses to sawfish, passing freely throughout its nine underwater towers – set across two levels. An underwater restaurant in the centre of the complex connects the themed buildings, and offers a remarkable dining experience with panoramic views of the royal-blue water. One activity, ‘Sleeping with Sharks’, involves a memorable, if hair-raising, overnight experience within the building.

In a word: Elegant

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Valencia's L'Oceanogràfic is the largest aquarium of its kind in Europe

Monterey Bay Aquarium

California, US

With the open ocean lapping at its walls, the Monterey Bay Aquarium seems at one with the Pacific. Within, an exhibit houses a remarkable expanse of California giant kelp lurk horn sharks, wolf eels and luminous-orange Garibaldi fish. Clouds of sardines move as one, while great, dark turtles pass by lazily, interspersed with colourful jellyfish with names such as the cross jelly, the egg yolk jelly and the moon jelly. With its 90ft-long windows, the Open Sea exhibit is a visual delight. Popular spectacles include the daily feeding of the penguins and the ¡Viva Baja! Life on the Edge exhibition, featuring creatures from the coastal habitats of Baja California, where rugged desert coastline meets the Pacific’s sapphire waters.

In a word: Dramatic

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The 90ft-long windows of California's Monterey Bay Aquarium allow for an ethereal immersive experience

The Aquarium of Western Australia

Perth

The Aquarium of Western Australia is the proud owner of the world’s largest living coral reef within an aquarium. These tiny animals are tricky to propagate and require specific conditions to thrive, growing at a rate of only
a few centimetres a year. The aquarium’s first project was a groundbreaking study into the movements of the great white shark along the 12,889km-long coastline of Western Australia, with findings including the deepest-ever recorded dive of a great white – 570m. Whale- and dolphin- watching tours out on the open ocean operate every Wednesday with sightings guaranteed – and an underwater microphone offers visitors the unique opportunity to listen to the songs of humpback whales.

In a word: Ambitious

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The Aquarium of Western Australia hosts the world's largest living coral reef within an aquarium

Lisbon Oceanarium

Portugal

Mola mola, or sunfish, are the heaviest known bony fish, and this aquarium, alongside housing one of these vast, bizarre-looking creatures (in German, they’re known as “swimming heads”), has provided valuable guidance on the species’ tagging and conservation. A recent temporary exhibit featured a spectacular expanse of living, floating artwork christened Forests Underwater by Takashi Amano, an award-winning “auqascaper”, accompanied by a lilting piece

by the musician and composer Rodrigo Leão. A hypnotically soothing multisensory environment was created within the aquarium, designed to transfix and amaze, and raise awareness of tropical rainforest conservation.

In a word: Sublime

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The Lisbon Oceanarium focuses on multisensory experience in all of its exhibits

Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo

UAE

Situated in the vast Dubai Mall, the Dubai Aquarium houses one of the largest water tanks in the world, containing thousands of specimens. It is also home to the Ocean School, whose purpose is to educate students on a range of topics associated with undersea life including the different aquatic environments around the globe, the intriguing adaptations that allow creatures to thrive in extreme environments, and an exploration of the difficulties that face conservationists. In the Jewels of Arabia programme, students are taught about the culture and traditions of the local area, with explorations of the history of fishing and pearl diving.

In a word: Educational

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Dubai's aquarium hosts one of largest water tanks in the world

Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium

Japan

As well as whale sharks, sea turtles and manatees, the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium also contains an Oceanic Culture Museum Planetarium, which focuses on the ancient connection between the sea and the Oceanic peoples of Asia and the Pacific. The Native Okinawan Village recreates the homes and gardens of the utopian Ryukyu Islands. The aquarium is dedicated to conservation, and was the first to successfully breed whale sharks and manta rays. A visitor said they “were blown away by the whale shark tank with its giant rays... we also loved to see the very solemn cuttlefish cruising along the first tank’s front edge, apparently eyeing the fashion choices of patrons”.

In a word: Fascinating

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Japan's Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium is dedicated to marine life conservation

Shanghai Ocean Aquarium

China

Coupled with the world’s longest underwater tunnel, the Shanghai Ocean Aquarium prides itself on housing and conserving endangered species, particularly those from the famous Yangtze River. With nine different zones, the aquarium leads visitors through a journey beginning in China and moving on to span five continents and four oceans, showcasing some of the most precious specimens residing in our oceans, including the Chinese sturgeon, giant salamander, electric eels, spotted seal, seadragons and sand tiger sharks. For both international and local students, the aquarium offers various fun and educational activities, including DIY art and craft lessons, interactive games, bilingual talks, touch-pool activities and a guided tour of the aquarium.

In a word: Impressive

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Shanghai's Ocean Aquarium takes the visitor on a journey through four oceans