In April 2007 Olaf Paterok and myself took a ten-day tour to see the most important and interesting zoological collections in Portugal and to visit the new Omega Parque in the south of Portugal, which unfortunately has announced that it is to be closed very soon. During our tour we learned that we were lucky to see a number of other collections which are on the point of changing their appearance or closing. So it was the right time to do a survey and get an impression of the current situation of zoos, zoo design and wild animal husbandry in Portugal.
Despite the fact that Lisbon already had an aquarium, the city authorities decided to invest in the new and unique project of a large oceanário - an aquarium with enormous tanks for extremely large fish. The planning and construction took several years, and the project was finished and ready for inauguration at the start of the world exposition in Lisbon in 1998. In fact the Oceanário was the most successful of all the EXPO projects. People queued in line for up to four hours to see the heavily advertised collection of marine life.
Visitors to Lisbon can find the Oceanário opposite to the new main station Oriente at the 'Parque dos Nacioes' on the east coast of Lisbon - which is the former EXPO area. The style of the building is quite interesting as it actually stands on poles in the sea. A large bridge with two levels connects the cubical main building to the land with all the cash points, entrance area, shop, café, offices and many more facilities. The entrance fee is surprisingly cheap at €10.50 - in fact the cost of visiting this, by far the most modern zoo project in Portugal, is around the average for all the zoological collections. To avoid a queue at the entrance is almost impossible at the Oceanário. One can choose some less busy times, but in the season one should be prepared for a bit of waiting.
To enter the building the visitor walks on the upper level of the bridge into the Oceanário and at once stands right in front of the central tank which simulates the open ocean. The educational idea is to lead visitors on a journey around the world's most important seas. The starting exhibit has Atlantic puffins (Fratercula arctica), razorbills (Alca torda) and guillemots (Uria aalge) living in an artificial rock display. The idea of the whole exhibit system is a walk on two levels. When continuing the tour the visitor will come along the same part of the building but one level below. Here he can see the animals from underwater as well as the fish living in this sea, in this case Atlantic species. This principle is valid for all four theme displays.
Going to the next part, people come alongside one of four large windows. Here a look into the open ocean allows a view of some really rare sights in any aquarium worldwide - two really large (about two metres) sun fish (Mola mola) and a huge manta ray (Manta birostris). We had seen these three animals four years before during another visit to the Oceanário and they were indeed much more impressive now - obviously they had grown a great deal. The manta arrived in November 2002 with a wingspan of 1.6 metres. In April 2007 - just two weeks after our visit - the scientists of the Oceanário released this specimen back to the wild with a wingspan of 3.5 metres. As this species can reach a measurement of up to seven metres, the people involved had not been sure whether the environment of the Oceanário might block its growth nor if an animal growing that large would stay healthy in a tank. When released, the ray was equipped with two satellite transmitters to collect data on its behaviour.
In the following exhibit we saw three species of penguin, macaroni, rockhopper and Magellanic. The penguins were living together with some Inca terns in an environment of artificial rocks and real ice. The air temperature was quite chilly, obviously in order to resemble the very south of Patagonia. Again the birds were using the water and thus could be seen from below.
Coming to the next large window we saw an enormous number of sharks swimming in the big central tank, the most impressive being the sandtiger or grey nurse shark (Carcharias taurus) with its dangerous-looking teeth. But the reef sharks, zebra sharks, sandbar sharks and all the other 33 species of sharks and rays (Chondrichthyes) were fascinating.
Theme number three was the north Pacific with the Alaskan coast. Here a pair of Alaskan sea otters (Enhydra l. lutris) were swimming in a small enclosure. In view of the fact that these animals never go on land, the size of the tank to swim and dive seemed to be quite small. The surface in particular is by far too small for large mammals like these otters, especially as these poor creatures have no way to get away from the crowd who can almost touch them. A pair of American oystercatchers (Haematopus bachmani) lived on the rocks in this exhibit.
Display number four was the Indian Ocean with the islands of the Indo-Pacific. A reef with many corals was the water display, but a small tropical forest with some birds such as turacos, waxbills, wydahs and doves and a trail to walk through fascinated the visitors much more.
Having gone right round the central tank, the visitor then goes downstairs and does the same tour again having a submarine view of all the displays. Here one could have a break at one of the large windows to relax and enjoy the view into the open ocean. Large groupers, guitarfish and nurse sharks as well as many rays came along. On the surface the huge manta ray and some barracudas were swimming in circles.
A tour around the Oceanário takes at least two hours and can easily take up to four. The fine gift shop and the café next door help to make it a beautiful visit. But after having had more than ten million visitors since 1998, the whole place seems to have gone downhill a bit. Everything looks rather worn and a general refurbishment in the near future would help to keep this one of the finest aquariums in the world and surely the most spectacular in Europe.