My son Rowan was two when he met his first shark. Luckily for both of them there was a pane of glass between them. Rowan already had a fascination for all things fishy, fuelled by the excellent children’s programme Octonauts where a polar bear and his friends care for injured sealife. Consequently his limited vocabulary was boosted by a few marine animals; he could say ‘fish’ and ‘crab’ and ‘shell’. But he hadn’t yet learnt the word for shark. So when he needed to name the giant killing machine only inches from his nose he called it a ‘Raah-fish’. Since that family holiday the name has stuck. You may not think we get to use the phrase too often but when one of your favourite family days out is the National Marine Aquarium at Plymouth, the word gets used a great deal. Sharks are only one of the highlights of the Aquarium which also boasts turtles, sea horses and all manner of fascinating sea-creatures. There is also a fantastic learning zone where friendly and helpful staff are always on hand to stimulate and educate hungry young minds.
The Aquarium works so well because of its outstanding layout. Your visit starts by discovering the sea life of Plymouth Sound. One of my absolute favourite areas is here. In a small tank some shark egg sacs are backlit and it’s actually possible to see the tiny embryonic sharks swimming around inside. Your journey of discovery opens out gradually, taking in the coasts of Britain, Atlantic Oceans and ending with tropical waters. On the way highpoints include the largest fish tank in the UK with 2.5 million litres of water. This is the place where Rowan met his first shark. According to the helpful signs the tank contains Sand Tiger Sharks and Nurse Sharks, but they’re all Raah-fish to him. Providing shelter for the many animals is a full-sized replica of a WWII seaplane. Although this and many other ambitious exhibits provide the main talking points, it is also the tiny details which fascinate children. My seven year old daughter and I once spent a full ten minutes staring at a tiny crab which had landed upside down on the sand and was struggling desperately to right itself. Scores of attempts failed and my daughter and I grabbed hands as we started to wonder if we were watching this poor creature’s sad demise. It was so moving to watch this tiny creature that we didn’t even notice that our rapt attention had attracted a crowd who formed behind us and engaged with the same small story. When the crab finally got to his feet there was a genuine outpouring of emotion through the crowd. My daughter and I actually cried with happiness before chasing after my son who was running off to spot the next Raah-fish.