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Blue Reef Aquarium – Portsmouth

This review comes courtesy of Pippa Mattinson, a well known dog trainer and author of several successful books. She also runs a number of websites and popular blogs looking at dog training specifically and country living in general. If you’d like to see more of her then look no further than www.pippamattinson.com

An Aquatic Experience

My beloved and I both agreed that a nice grand-parently thing to do, would be to take our two small (aged nearly two and nearly four) grandchildren out for the day.

“Let’s take them to the Sea Life Centre in Portsmouth”, says himself. And this sounded like a great idea.

We are somewhat out of practice in catering for the needs of tiny tots for more than a couple of hours at a time, but I felt that a Sea Life Centre might be just interesting enough without being too long a day for little ones, or us.

Twelve years ago

My last visit to the Sea Life Centre was around twelve years ago for our then seven year old younger son’s birthday. The highlight of the visit for our kids had been the tank full of rays that the children could ‘stroke’.

The tunnel under the water with sharks swimming above had been quite impressive. In addition, I figured the place had probably been much improved over the last few years.

Location, location…

Our youngest son was home for the weekend and I encouraged him to join us. A bigger adult to child ratio always makes things easier, and besides, the little kids love him and I thought he might enjoy it.

It would be a trip down memory lane!

As we were about to depart, younger son listened intently to our conversation about locations and directions, and pointed out, that the Sea Life Centre was actually in Brighton, not in Portsmouth.

A small fact that both I and himself, had completely forgotten.

Brighton is quite a journey from our home (a good hour and a half) and we didn’t know how the kids would cope with being in the car for that long. And himself was insistent that there is now a brilliant new Sea Life Centre in Portsmouth (around forty minutes away).

It is called the Blue Reef Aquarium he stated firmly, and informed us that he had looked at their website, and deemed it a ‘good place to go’.

At the last minute our elder son, at a loose end that morning, and encouraged by his father’s confident description, decided to join the party too.

So we set off for Portsmouth in two vehicles at around ten to nine on Saturday morning and arrived there at ten-thirty. The Aquarium was signposted quite early on as we approached the town centre which was promising. And we were directed to the sea front itself.

“That must be it” exclaims I , pointing at a large pyramid shaped structure covered in glass windows, as we drove along Clarence Esplanade.

But ‘that’ turned out to be some kind of sports centre. We drove along the esplanade slowly, looking for a large building with no luck.

A small café

A Massive Underground Complex?
A Massive Underground Complex?

Eventually we pulled in outside a small café on the sea front to get our bearings and give the children a snack. We then noticed that the name ‘Blue Reef’ featured prominently on the front of the café. It must be near here somewhere! A closer look revealed the entrance to the aquarium at the front of a small, single storey building right next door!

This was it.

No building big enough to house large sharks and a huge underwater viewing tunnel was apparent, but as himself pointed confidently, out the ‘entire structure’ was probably underground.

A supposition that was not confirmed by the polite girl on the desk who gave us an odd look as she shook her head in reply. The large complex that we had expected was clearly not on the menu.

How fast can we get around!

1st Grandchild was in a fever of excitement after having her hand stamped (so that we could return at any point that day should we need a break from the proceedings), and couldn’t wait a second longer so we headed at great speed to the first exhibit, a tank with some large sea bass in it.

“Fish!” exclaimed our small grandson with delight

“Ooohh”, said his sister, momentarily, then “what’s in the next one?”

This was to set the pattern of the next few minutes, with our Grand-daughter admiring each tank briefly before pressing on determinedly to the next one. She was clearly on a mission to break the record for the fastest circuit of the centre.

Within a few exhibits, it became clear that if we progressed at this speed, our entire visit would be over within ten minutes.

With the aid of some jam sandwiches, we managed to slow the three year old down enough to spread the experience to an hour, but in truth the collection was very small.

Value for money?

I don’t want this to be a snipe at the Blue Reef aquarium.

On the reviews I looked at later online, some people complained about the price, but I actually think that it was perfectly good value for money at less than £50 for four adults and a three year old (the baby was free) and it would have been an interesting experience for any child over seven.

I felt that the building generally had a bit of a ‘seedy’ and run down air to it, but that the fish seemed very well cared for. The costs of running the place, keeping the exhibited tanks clean (which they were) and the fish in good health, must be very high.

My own expectations were very unrealistic, and largely a product of my fertile imagination. But the reviews I looked at online later, do confirm that many visitors are at least underwhelmed, and sometimes very disappointed.

Why not say that this is a very small collection that you can cover in an hour with no difficulty? That would be a bonus for some people at a loose end with an hour or two to spare.Perhaps there might be more satisfied visitors if the advertising were a little more realistic?

Not all Blue Reef Aquariums are the same.
Not all Blue Reef Aquariums are the same.

It’s fair to say, that the image on the Blue Reef website, of the shark swimming over the underground tunnel that we walked through is not quite representative of the experience we had that day.

And it was sad that the children were not allowed to touch the rays, who were just as friendly and appealing as the ones in the Brighton Sea Life Centre.

Be realistic

If like me you have images in your head of the sort of underground walkway featured in Jaws, or the kind of Sea Life Centre you might expect to find in Florida, you are going to be disappointed.

I think I must have fondly imagined I was going to Miami, so waking up in Portsmouth was a bit of a shock..

I also felt as though I had got my sons there under ‘false pretences’, but they were very sweet about it.

In conclusion

If I had driven for more than an hour to get to the Blue Reef, I think I would have been quite fed up.

However, if you live locally to Portsmouth, have children of the right age, and if you are realistic about what you are going to get, I think you will enjoy your visit.

Who is it suitable for?

I think this is an outing for children from around 7-12 years.

It would be fun to provide older children with a list (perhaps with pictures) of fish and other sea creatures to find and identify (maybe there was one at the entrance desk).

I would allow up to an hour for your visit.

If your children are under five, they will probably enjoy the limited facilities in the play area more than the tanks full of fish.

We had our only disagreement here though.

My three year old grand-daughter and I had a slight difference of opinion when we made a pit stop at the play area. She felt that anywhere with sand to play in (there was a large sandpit) required the removal of clothes. And I mean all clothes.

Whilst I felt that when playing in a public place in the middle of Portsmouth, watched by a cross section of society, a girl should probably hang on to her knickers.

I was insistent and she soon recovered from the shock of discovering that Granny was not going to be persuaded on this one.

The café next door is very basic but gave us some passable portions of chips, to round off our visit.

It had three high-chairs available. But if you are taking a baby or toddler, note that the café lacked a nappy changing area in the ladies toilet.

A lovely day

Despite being somewhat underwhelmed by the aquarium, we had a lovely day out. The children were just brilliant. Beautifully mannered and with smiles and enchanting chatter all day.

And they both slept all the way home. Perfect.

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