Sea Life London Aquarium is located on the South Bank of the Thames, near the London Eye and just opposite the Houses of Parliament. As it is one of the widely-advertised and highly overpriced “tourist traps” I have stayed away from it, but eventually paid the establishment a brief visit in mid-May together with a friend. Although we both went into London by rail and therefore could make use of the 2-for-1 offer, I still found the price wanting at £20.70 for two (£10.35 per person) and there was no student concession available.
The London Aquarium boasts of harbouring over 2 million litres of water that houses over 500 species, including 12 species of shark. As a whole, it is “home to one of Europe’s largest collections of global marine life” (according to the official website). It all sounds well and good, but the reality is that the experience is wholly anticlimactic (as expected), and that the 65 displays are tacky and home to stressed and unhealthy animals that one is very sad to see. (But then again, this is often true about this kind of establishments.)
The larger fish showed classical symptoms of stress from captivity, of swimming up and down the tank along the same unaltering path, up-and-down-and-back-and-forth — and repeat. I would guess this was both due to the overcrowding of the tanks and the lack of hiding places for the animals — all to keep them visible to the thrill-hungry visitors that have paid for the privilege of seeing all this fish. While this probably keeps the majority of the million-odd visitors the London Aquarium sees each year happy, it only made me sad and overall I thought the experience quite unpleasant.
Guppies are among the easiest of fish to keep as they are colourful and hardy and breed easily. I kept guppies myself for many years growing up, and I know that they grow rather large after a year or two. The guppies in the Amazon ‘habitat’ display at the London Aquarium were however miserably small, and the only large specimen that I saw (with some disgust) suffered from an advanced infection of some intestinal parasite. That the London Aquarium had allowed this infection to progress does not reflect well on their general commitment to the well-being of the animals in their care.
This is shocking as the London Aquarium otherwise flaunts broad and wide about its commitment to charity and their support of various breeding programs. This is also interesting when you remember that the Aquarium is located on prime London estate and that the costs of just running the establishment must be nothing short of astronomical. This puts the entry fee into perspective, especially as the Aquarium is run by the Merlin Entertainment group, which means the profit must scale accordingly. I cannot be bothered to see if exact numbers on its annual revenue are available, so I might be wrong, but if that was so, I would be very surprised. Regardless, money or no money, there is no excuse to put animals on display if the experience is going to leave them stressed and you are not going to care for their well-fare. Animals (even if they are ‘just’ fish) are not supposed to be used for entertainment purposes. They are living beings and need to be treated with respect. This is hard and takes a lot of time and costs a lot of money, but if you are truly committed to their cause, this is going to be a minor concern when the overall picture is taken into account.
I will not visit Sea Life London Aquarium again, and I would not recommend anyone else to do so. There are aquariums and marine displays of various quality all over the world, so you need not visit London for this purpose. Besides, there are far more pleasant things to do in London — which also have the benefit of being more relevant. Just across the river from the South Bank — via Westminster Bridge — lie the Houses of Parliament, for example, with their iconic clock tower. Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace with the St. James’ and Green parks are right nearby.
If you’re looking for something biologically-themed to do in London, I would recommend Kew Botanic Gardens. To visit Kew is not only affordable, but also incredibly pleasant. More on this next!