National Sealife Centre

· life ·

We decided to spend the day visiting the National Sealife Centre in Birmingham. They used to feature British marine life, and had an exhibit following the course of the River Severn from source to estuary, but evidently they decided that British fish are a bit — well — drab. It's true that there are some very lovely fish, crustaceans and molluscs in British waters (we even have cuttlefish), but the overall tonal palette is somewhat on the brown side.

Anyway, they've just finished a big refit, and have a lot of tropical tanks, seahorse breeding facilities and one of those walk-through transparent tunnels through the biggest tank. Here and there you can still see the odd reminder of the old Severn exhibit. A diorama of the coast around the Severn estuary — complete with stuffed gulls and oyster catchers — has had a few coconut palms added for that tropical touch, but it doesn't really fool anyone.

The tanks have been nicely done, though few contain real coral or plants. However, the fish look healthy enough, and most have plenty of space. I loved watching the rays flap lazily around their tank, gliding silently over the base and walls of the tank. I find them so relaxing that I could watch them all day. The crustaceans were brilliant too; along with some brilliantly coloured shrimps, there was a tank full of the most enormous spider crabs I've ever seen. They look like they should come from another planet.

I was disappointed that they didn't have any octopi, cuttlefish or squid (I would have been happy just to see them walking on eight legs, rather than pretending to be coconuts), but they did have a mantis shrimp. Mantis shrimps are incredible. Not only do they have an incredibly fast strike with their specialised front appendages that is capable of breaking double-layered safety glass, but they are also beautifully coloured and have amazingly complex eyes. I'd love a mantis shrimp. In a very strong aquarium, of course.

I took some pictures at the Centre — quite a challenge without a flash and in rather dark conditions. There's a photoset on Flickr if you're interested.