Lisbon Oceanarium

A magical adventure into a microcosmos of many costal and underwater worlds, from tropical waters to Arctic cliffs…

The Lisbon Oceanarium is a microcosm of many little worlds, many perfectly created aquatic habitats, each giving us a glimpse of the diversity of life living in our oceans. I love this Oceanarium for two main reasons. One, it’s immersive. The environment is built for the animals first, and then, for human visitors, second. Here, you feel like you are entering their world, unlike other aquariums where they are put on display for you. The second reason is that there are no whales/dolphins kept in the tanks. I suppose one could criticise the keeping of any animal in a tank, but we all have to draw our lines somewhere and be comfortable with that choice.

Sea Otters

The visit to the Oceanarium started on the upper floor, with a popular aquatic mammal – the sea otter. Like all otters, these two are unbelievably cute. They are two females with thick brown-white fur which they spend most of their time grooming.

One of the female sea otters in Lisbon’s Oceanarium, grooming her cheek fur

These two otters are quite old – I think when we visited they were around 17 years old, maybe older. Also, they had been to many different zoos in Europe on zoo exchange programmes.

These sea otters spend most of their time floating on their backs and grooming their fur, a truly leisurely life!

When the Lisbon Oceanarium was undergoing its huge re-do not so long ago, they were in Germany, so these two old ladies have seen quite a lot in their lifetimes!

Sea otters have fur that look like little soft spikes – this structure enables the fur to trap lots of air as sea otters have no blubber. The sea otter’s fur is better than blubber at retaining heat at shallow depths

But perhaps I’m wrong in calling them old. After all, in the wild, sea otters live till around 21 years of age, but in captivity they can live up to 28. So these girls are more… middle-aged.

This sea otter looks like something has caught her attention – maybe lunch is on its way?

The otters seem to spend most of their grooming time on their face, rubbing the fluffy hair around their cheeks with circular paw motions. I’m not sure why they seem to spend more than 80% of their grooming time on their cheeks, but in any case, it makes them even more adorable to watch!

Bird Habitats

Also on the upper floor are the bird habitats. The birds at the Lisbon Oceanarium are from the Arctic and temperate regions, and the habitats provided for them resemble the rocky cliffs they would spend their summers nesting in. Here, you’ll get to see puffins and penguins along with birds like the Inca tern and the common murre.

I have to say the oceanarium did a great job at recreating the roosting environment for these birds. Funnily enough, for the puffin, the common murre and the razorbill auk, these rocky outcrops aren’t their natural habitat for most of their lives. They only come to such outcrops in spring to roost, spending most of their lives out in the open ocean.

A puffin, standing proud with his bright orange beak and white breast

I really love visiting little man-made habitats like these ones. Crossing the threshold from one habitat to the next really makes you feel like you’ve teleported thousands of kilometres. One moment, I was on the coast of Iceland, hanging out with the puffins, and the next, I’m on the ocean side cliffs of Peru, observing the beautiful Inca terns in their burrows.

The flying birds (not the penguins) have quite a lot of freedom and I saw a common murre hanging out at the very edge of its enclosure, almost on the visitor’s pathway. But for the most part the animals keep to themselves and stay within the bounds of their enclosure.

The common murre, a bird found in the North Atlantic, from the coasts of Iceland to the beaches of Portugal

One common thing about all these birds that live pretty tough lives – frigid climate, the need to migrate long distances during the winter, difficult prey – is that all of them mate for life and tend to only lay one egg per season. That’s because raising a chick is difficult under the conditions they live in. Their chicks have to be fed well in order to get big enough to join their parents in the migration when winter comes, and fish aren’t the easiest prey. It takes two birds to raise one chick properly. These difficulties coupled with climate change – for example, El Niño has a big effect on the marine food chain these birds depend on – mean that most of them are vulnerable or are threatened with extinction.

An elegant Inca tern, with its striking red markings, looking out wistfully over an imagined horizon

One thing I am amazed always when visiting bird enclosures, is how non-smelly the keepers manage to keep the enclosures. Considering that the razorbill auk’s method of preventing their eggs from rolling off the rock is by attaching it with its excrement, their space didn’t smell to bad.


There’s also an amphibian area with loads of amazing creatures. Usually I’m not too crazy about amphibians since they don’t tend to do much at all. The oceanarium did have a creature I saw on one of the BBC documentaries narrated by David Attenborough – the man responsible for government funding of the natural sciences.

A very cute and round grey tree frog sitting on a broad leaf with his arms tucked underneath his body

This creature was the axolotl. We don’t have a picture of it, I think it was because it was too dark, there were a bit too many visitors around, and the creature was pretty elusive. But it was great to see something so exotic I only saw on television before, in real life.

The amphibian we did manage to photograph is the grey tree frog. One wonders about the effort it must take for these creatures to live up in trees. Like, how do they manage to maintain optimum moisture levels on their skin? I suppose prime tree frog territory would be a tree with a fern between its branches that keeps a pool of rainwater the frog can dip in at its leisure.

Sea Creatures and the Main Aquarium

After the amphibians, we headed down to the second level. This is where things start to get really magical.

The beautiful, ethereal sea nettle. Jellyfish are one of the first creatures to have evolved. Unlike most other animals, they have radial symmetry (only a top and bottom and no left and right sides), and no centralised nervous system.

In the heart of the Lisbon Oceanarium is the central aquarium, which holds 5 million litres of seawater, that’s around 14 swimming pools. This volume of water is divided cleverly into four seperate sections – two temperate, one tropical and one arctic. I remember an amazing viewing angle from the tropical tank looking into the large main tank. From that spot I could see huge manta rays and sharks gliding leisurely, all through colourful coral and schools of little tropical fish.

A posterior view of a pretty big shark swimming in the central aquarium of the Lisbon Oceanarium

The mantas and sharks were really wonderful to watch as they swam around the aquarium. Personally I felt a little bad seeing such large mantas in the aquarium – they are the most intelligent of fish, and they are also migratory animals, so I don’t think being cooped up is something they enjoy too much. But nevertheless, they were amazing to watch, along with all the many other huge fish in the aquarium. The experience was done so well that I don’t think you could get a better underwater experience without getting into some scuba gear!

Due to the very clever layering of aquariums, one can get lost in the many layers of fish on display

We had spent many hours at the Lisbon Oceanarium, and soon it was after lunch, when the place started filling up with visitors. We were glad we were one of the first to get there at opening time. Before we left, I took one last look at the temporary exhibition, Takeshi Amano’s “Forests Underwater”, a display put up for the Oceanarium’s grand opening

Here are all the photographs from the Lisbon Oceanarium: