As we waited for our suitcases to spin round on the luggage conveyor in the arrivals hall at Lisbon airport, a 6ft wide ad for the Oceanário de Lisboa was extremely enticing. Lisbon’s oceanarium, in the Parque das Nações area, is the largest in Europe and the second biggest on the planet with over 16,000 marine organisms with some 450 species.
It was the crowning glory of Lisbon’s Expo ’98 and was designed by American architect Peter Chermayeff. Its futuristic design at the end of the pier on the banks of the Tagus river reminded me of a space ship – the one from 90’s children film classic Titan AE carrying the essence of all planet earth ready to colonise.
You definitely get a similar sense in the Oceanário which is divided into four main areas representing the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian and Antarctic ocean habitats. My mum was rather taken with the group of penguins, whilst two otters live in the Atlantic zone named Eusebio, after the football player and Amalia, a famous fado singer.
As you move through, a vast central tank lies at the centre of the Oceanário. The tank is over 5,000 cubed metres and with four 49 square metre windows, it provides a glimpse of what the ocean floor looks like, without donning oxygen tanks. Its sheer vastness allows over 100 species to co-exist with pelagic swimmers (see I did pay attention!) to swim above the bottom dwellers – sharks, rays, barracudas and moray eels all feature. But by far the majestic star of the show was the sunfish.
Now anyone who knows me, will remember that I have got something of a fish phobia (ichthyophobia – which I can trace back to the time my little brother pushed toward a large tank in London aquarium and I came face to face with one of those giant carp fish – scarred me for life!) My goodness this sunfish gave me the absolute heebie-jeebies.
The sunfish is heaviest bony fish, weighing up to one tonne. Endangered, they normally live in temperate and tropical oceans, drifting along, exposing their enormous bodies to the sun as a way of thermally recharging before a deeper dive.
After a short walk, we refuelled at Hippopotamus, a European steakhouse for a round of burgers. We were lucky to get a table as shortly after we tucked in the whole neighbourhood descended to catch Portugal play in its first UEFA Euro game of the season. Football fever was everywhere during our stay and every night as we left our holiday resort, the security guy would give us an excited update (or would commiserate if England were playing).