Monaco: Aquarium gives visitors close-up views of ocean life
Stars and Stripes June 12, 2003
Tourists flock to the tiny principality of Monaco to mingle with the rich, beautiful and famous. Or maybe lose a few bucks at the famous Monte Carlo casino.
But for those who don’t like to leave their brains behind on their vacations, there’s another option: the Musée Océanographique.
Not that the museum, founded in 1910, requires much beyond a few “ooohs” and “aaahs” from those who simply like to marvel at colorful and unusual aquatic life. But others who would like to spend a few hours learning about the species in the Mediterranean Sea and tropical oceans around the world can do so at their leisure — in about five languages.
Pierre Gilles, the assistant director for the museum’s aquarium for more than a decade, said if there were more space available, officials would love to install hands-on exhibits for children that many newer aquariums around the world have. But space is limited and growth is unlikely, partially because of the museum's striking location on a sheer cliff just above the Mediterranean.
“We prefer to emphasize the information on the species,” he said. “There is a big lack of space, so we try to use it as well as we can.”
The result is about 90 tanks filled with about 250 species of tropical fish, 100 species of Mediterranean fish and about two dozen freshwater fish.
Many of the fish live in environments similar to those they’d experience naturally. The aquarium grows its own coral reefs, which takes “a lot of know-how and some technology,” Gilles said.
The fish are gathered during expeditions conducted by the museum or purchased from other aquariums around the world. Several early expeditions were led by the museum’s founder — and the country’s ruler — Prince Albert I.
Albert joined the Spanish navy at age 17. In 1873, a few years after leaving the service, he purchased a 200-ton boat, the Hirondelle, and undertook several expeditions. After receiving favorable attention on his discoveries during the 1889 World Fair in Paris, he decided to build a marine biology laboratory in the principality.
The first stone was laid in 1899 in the part of Monaco known as Monaco-Ville. Eleven years later, the museum opened.
The aquarium is the main draw for most tourists. But there’s also a floor that’s divided in half between memorabilia from Albert’s expeditions and displays of skeletons and preserved remains of aquatic creatures.
The museum also has a conference room that can be rented. In fact, groups with cash and cache can rent the whole museum — including the aquarium — after closing hours.
There’s also a restaurant and gift store. And good views of the city and surrounding area from the terrace on the roof.
The aquarium is put together on two levels, with Mediterranean and tropical wings separated by a large central tank structure that contains dozens of fish and a few sharks.
Both wings contain many species of fish not found in the typical fish tank.
“Most of the people are astonished to see how many fish can live in the Mediterranean,” Gilles said.
There’s information on the creatures near each tank. Pictures help visitors find some of the harder-to-spot inhabitants.
Some of the fish blend into their environments well. Others prefer to hide in spots that are sometimes difficult to view. The lighting in a few tanks, designed to make the fish feel more comfortable, presents challenges, too.
But most tanks feature colorful fish that children — and others — can gawk at with little problem.
Meanwhile, older visitors can pick up information about the species from the illustrated wall panels near the tank. The information in the museum is in French, English, German, Italian and Spanish. Headphones can also be rented for those really interested in getting information. They’re most helpful with the other parts of the museum, where most of the written explanations are in French only.
Gilles said the goal of the aquarium — and also the museum — is to educate people about the aquatic environment. He said many people living around the Mediterranean don’t value the sea as much as they should.
“It’s a very rich sea, so it’s important to know it quite well … and protect it.”
A visit to the museum is certainly a start.
If you go ...
What: The Musée Océanographique is a four-story white structure built at the start of the 20th century. It sits on the rock plateau of Monaco along with the principality’s cathedral and the palace of the country’s royalty.
The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. during the peak summer months of July and August, closing an hour earlier April through June and September. It’s open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the rest of the year.
Admission is 11 euros for adults, 6 euros for children 6 to 18 and free for those under 6.
Admissions and sales in the souvenir shop and restaurant are all the museum has to support itself. It receives no money from the principality or the French government.
Where and how: Monaco is just a few minutes’ drive inside the French border from Italy.
It’s right off the A10 autostrada that starts in Genoa. There are several Agip and Esso stations on the autostrada within an hour’s distance of the border that take gasoline coupons, but none right near the border.
There are no toll stations between the border and Monaco, but there are several farther east.
There’s only one train station in Monaco. From the station, it’s a short walk to the bottom of the steps that ascend onto the main plateau. The harbor separates the plateau from the casino, forming a horseshoe of sorts.
When: Monaco can get crowded in the summer with tourists flocking in to see and be seen. But the aquarium is often not as crowded, though the occasional tour group can make a visit a little frustrating.
The city itself is expensive, but there are a few places to stay that won’t break most budgets. One is the Hotel de France, telephone (+377) (0) 93-30- 24-64, which charges 87 euros per night during the high season for a double room with bathroom and television.
The euro is the official currency of Monaco. And there are plenty of places to spend it. Several of the upper-tier hotels have their own restaurants, each being splurges for the budget conscious. There’s a McDonald’s in the shopping mall that’s at the bottom of the plateau on the side opposite the harbor. Those hankering for Tex-Mex food can try Le Texan, 4 rue Suffren Reymond. There are more than 100 other choices, some more affordable than others.
Who: Reach the museum at (377) (0) 93-15-36-00 by phone or email@example.com.
Hotel France is a two-star hotel about a block from the stairs up the plateau. The Rue de la Colle car park is about two blocks away. Those who stay at the hotel receive a discount on parking.
— Kent Harris