As soon as I saw that Tots 100 were looking for bloggers and their children to go on a review trip to the SEA LIFE London Aquarium I jumped at the chance. It's somewhere that I've wanted to take the kids for ages, and Mr C has been particularly keen to take Little Miss C but unfortunately he had to work on that day. Still – an opportunity too good to miss!
I set off from St Albans with Claire from Being a Mummy and two of her little ones. It worked really well as all our kids are friends anyway and they all helped entertain each other on the train. Now that London Blackfriars station has been redeveloped it's really easy to get to the Southbank from St Albans. A direct train and then you can use the new station entrance on the south side of the river and you're right there. We then walked along past many different bits of free entertainment until we reached the Aquarium itself, up by the London Eye.
Getting in was all very simple, although I can see how queues will build up at popular times. Once we'd all assembled as a group we were taken in the lift down into the body of the aquarium, and unfortunately that's where we hit a bit of a problem. All of the aquarium is below ground level and it's very dark in there – but then that's the case under the sea isn't it. Small children aren't always that keen on the dark though, especially when they're being asked to walk into a dark tunnel-like area and they don't know where they're going. Little Miss C went into a complete melt-down, which seemed to happen at exactly the same moment as Master C deciding to tell everyone how hungry he was. So two screaming children.
The staff at the aquarium were wonderful though and quickly took us through another way so that LMC didn't have to walk past the sharks as well. Two scary things at the same time was far too much for her at the start of this particular adventure. Once milk had been administered to Master C and cuddles to LMC we were ready to continue.
LMC started to really enjoy herself and get excited by all the sealife that she was seeing, although there was still a bit of a wobble at some dark points in the tour. She was really keen to see the turtles, but as we didn't have a map and I didn't see any sign posts anywhere I just had to keep telling her that we'd get there soon, whilst having no real idea as to when we would.
The layout of the aquarium is quite good for little ones as they can get close to all the tank and the glass comes down low so you don't need to pick them up for them to see the fish. There's also plenty of space to push a buggy around, and since it is a long route I would certainly advise taking a buggy with you for tired little legs. The problem we had was that the dark environment meant that some adults simply didn't see pre-schoolers walking about, or buggies, and as a result I saw a couple of children accidentally knocked over and a few adults walking into pushchairs.
Understandably, on weekdays the aquarium gets quite a few school groups going round and one was doing so at the time of our visit. I sincerely hope that not all school groups behave as this one did as at one point LMC was knocked to the floor by a group of school children pushing her out of the way so that they could look at the fish. She was devastated and sadly the teachers with the group didn't seem to think that doing this merited any kind of apology at all. How children are expected to learn how to behave when the adults with them also have no manners I have no idea. If you have timid younger children you might want to try to avoid when school groups are visiting, especially if they all behave like this one.
There are some wonderful exhibits at the aquarium and LMC really enjoyed seeing the range of fish and even the crocodile. I was interested to see a section all about the River Thames seeing as it flows right outside the aquarium and could have spent hours looking at the rays swimming around.
The final section that we went into was the one that has left me feeling most confused about how I felt about the aquarium overall. The antarctic zone climaxes with the Gentoo penguins and that's what LMC was really looking forward to seeing. She wasn't at all disappointed, but I'm afraid that as soon as I walked in I instantly thought of the film Happy Feet and the bit where Mumble ends up at the Marine World. Even the murals on the wall seemed to come from the film.
Like the rest of the aquarium, the penguin enclosure is underground with no natural light or fresh air. After seeing the penguins at both London Zoo and also Whipsnade it just didn't seem quite right. I did speak to one of the staff there about my concerns and he explained to me that the light for the penguins is controlled so that they have a "sunrise" and "sunset" along with the rest of London. Filtered air is also piped into the area where the penguins are and I am absolutely convinced that they are in an environment that is perfectly safe and healthy for them. However I'm afraid my first impression on walking into that area is one that has stuck with me.
So, my overall opinion of the aquarium was very mixed. It was hard work going round with the two kids, but LMC really enjoyed herself and even a week later is still talking about what she saw there with passion. Master C is a bit young to vocalise his opinion, but at the time did seem to enjoy watching things swim by as he sat in his buggy watching. I however just can't stop thinking about the penguins and the scene from Happy Feet and it makes me feel quite sad even now. As a result, if it was just me I might not return, but with the children I think I would. A tough call though.
Disclaimer: We were invited to the SEA LIFE London Aquarium as guests for the purposes of this review.
Apologies for the poor photo quality, but you are not allowed to use a camera flash in the aquarium so that it doesn't harm the sealife.