The start of your visit to the aquarium in La Rochelle is a taste of whats to come. Step inside what appears to be a submarine, but is in fact a lift, and you chug down to the depths of the aquarium proper. Step out, and walk through a tunnel of water, jellyfish floating around you. Superbe!
From there the marine creatures come thick and fast. The aquarium at La Rochelle boasts an impressive 12,000 marine animals, with 75 different aquaria within the complex that means a whopping three million litres of sea water! It is fantastic for families as there is something for everyone and for children of all ages. Many of the large tanks start at floor level so small children can get face to face with many of the creatures.
The aquarium is considered not just the best in the Charente-Maritime, but also one of the best in Europe, which is pretty amazing when you think it was started by one man, Rene Coutant, who was driven by a passion for the sea and its creatures. Today, the privately-owned aquarium continues to be a family business, run by his two children, Roselyne Coutant Benter and Pascal Coutant, who opened on the current site in 1988.
Spread over three floors, the aquarium is arranged according to habitats - the Atlantic ocean, Mediterranean, Oceanic, Caribbean and Indian Pacific. Across them all, you can expect to see everything from sea horses to sardines and string rays, barracudas to colourful parrot and clown fish.
The stars of the show, though, are undoubtedly the sharks. They are housed in a huge tank set in the centre of the aquarium. It extends through all three floors, allowing you to see the creatures from many different angles. Gaze at whitetip and the blacktip reef sharks, Port Jacksons and the grey nurse, the latter famous for its set of crooked and very scary-looking teeth. And as the sharks swim up to the glass, you get to see them in great detail! Look up to see the sawfish and its spookily human-like face.
The last exhibit is the tropical greenhouse with its waterfall and abundant plant life. Look out for the snapping turtles that wander across paths. Heed the signs and dont touch or pick them up. Ouch!
The aquarium also aims to be a place of learning and conservation. About 20 species now successfully breed at the aquarium including coral, clownfish and seahorses. It also has a Centre for Sea Turtles which explains its work with the endangered giant sea turtle. Of the seven species in the world, four swim off the Atlantic coast and those found washed up and ill are made well and then released back into the wild. Watch it all on film in the amphitheatre.
A visit lasts about two hours and, of course, there is a souvenir shop at the end!
The top floor restaurant, with terrace, has a view across the marina to La Rochelle. It does not serve fast food but dishes such as magret de canard and seafood pasta. A main course costs 14.90, with two courses 19.90 and three courses 23.90. The children's menu - mains such as steak hache with potato chips and beans, a dessert and drink - costs 8.40. Wine from 12.50 a bottle or 2.80 a glass. The restaurant is above the tropical greenhouse so it is warm and rather humid so if you're there during winter, make sure you can remove a layer or two.
If you prefer something lighter to eat, your only option is to buy a snack at the fast-food cabin just outside the main doors of the aquarium, where there is limited seating along a long bench. Otherwise, take a packed lunch or head into town.
Opening times: Tickets:
The aquarium at La Rochelle is open every day April-June and September: 9am-8pm-July-August 9-11pm October-March 10-8
Children:3 -17 years old (and students on presentation of card) : 11
Disabled visitors: 1.50 off the full ticket price.
Under 3 years old: free
Audio guides are available in a number of languages and cost 3e50