May, 2006

We headed out just after 8:30am in the van we had rented — along with Josef and Cassandra — to Monaco, primarily in order to visit the Aquarium there.

The drive was long, but Josef is a very capable driver at high speeds and we arrived in the coastal city state less than two hours later. One of the more interesting aspects of the drive was the repeated plunges into long tunnels — one that was 1.5 km long — cut into the heart of the mountains surrounding Monaco.

The place reminds me of pictures I have seen on Hong Kong: densely crowded with buildings queued up tightly against each other, seemingly lined up in a tight march into the Mediterranean Sea. A Hong Kong filled with Italianate-styled buildings. The harbour teemed with the spires of the innumerable boats, yachts and ships that filled the water almost as much as the buildings filled the land. Looming over the buildings were several construction cranes, and in the far distance, the mountain range enclosing Monaco, capped with clouds.

Our destination was the Oceanographic Institute, which houses the Aquarium. Josef found a spot in an underground parking garage relatively near by, and map in hand, we handed for the Institute. My map-reading was off, so we ended up being on the wrong side of a finger of land that jutted out into the harbour, though it was lucky from a picture-taking point of view, as the vantage point offered a grand glimpse of the harbour and hillside.

We found a sign pointing the way to the Institute, which also gave us a chance to look at the sea-side as we made our way. When we turned a corner past another parking garage, we came upon the sea-facing facade of the Institute building — an imposing late 19th century edifice founded by the nautical-minded Albert I of Monaco, which was built to impress, which it certainly did.

The Sea-Facing View of the Monaco Oceanographic Institute
The Sea-Facing View of the Monaco Oceanographic Institute

We made our way to the front of the building where we got our tickets and made our way inside. We were not disappointed.

The Family Looking at the Top of the Coral Reef Display
The Family Looking at the Top of the Coral Reef Display

The first thing that one sees is a panorama of fish living at the top of a coral reef. Clown fish danced in anemones, large and colourful jacks swam around, and a saucer-sized manta ray flapped back and forth, its fins occasionally cresting the surface as it paced back and forth.

A Ray Gliding by the Top of the Coral Reef Display
A Ray Gliding by the Top of the Coral Reef Display

As we looked down we could see that the actual tank was huge – at least two stories high, and we were only seeing the top quarter or so. Below we could see cleaner wrasse picking off dead skin and surface parasites from larger fish below, and occasionally a shark would slide into and then out of view. A nearby sign explained the intent: the top part devoted to the showing off “a multitude of brightly coloured fishes and coral species and, on the other, the part of the reef exposed to the open sea with large pelagic fish and great predators.” The intent is to actually grow coral in the facility, and daylight is simulated in the tank by using 23 massive 1,000 and 2,000 watt lamps. Another plaque talked about its impressive statistics: the total volume was 400 cubic meters of water, the transparent “panel” (not glass apparently) was 35cm thick, and itself weighed 20 metric tons, which helped to keep in a weight of 600 metric tons of water, sand and sea life. Development on the tank continues, and the plaque noted that hundreds of invertebrate species, useful in maintaining the ecosystem were to be added in the following months. We walked down the stairs to see the larger fish lurking, or just plain resting, on the bottom.

Vanessa at the Bottom of the Coral Reef Display at the Monaco Aquarium
Vanessa at the Bottom of the Coral Reef Display at the Monaco Aquarium

On the bottom floor were the rest of the aquarium displays, a very extensive collection of all sorts of fascinating fish and other underwater creatures.

Annie Beside the Aquarium Reserved for the Youngest Fishes
Annie Beside the Aquarium Reserved for the Youngest Fishes

Stone Fish: Don't Touch!
Stone Fish: Don’t Touch!

Lion Fish. Also Don't Touch!
Lion Fish. Also Don’t Touch!

A very impressive display overall, one that definitely tops the previous extensive aquarium I have visited, the one in London.

Afterward we had taken a look at all of the exhibits, we took the elevator to the top floor, where there was a restaurant. I had my BlackBerry with me, and couldn’t resist sending a cheeky email to some of my friends and colleagues back home while I was there.

I wrote:

From: captmondo
To: “his friends and colleagues”
Sent: Wed Mar 15 08:24:47 2006
Subject: Greetings from Sunny Monaco!

Just had to say that! 😉

Am about to have lunch at the Oceanographic Institute.

Fish you were here.

Sent from my BlackBerry Wireless Handheld

I’m such a bastard. But I had to do it. 😉

After we finished with lunch and had a look at the city from the rooftop of the building, we left the building and made our way to the castle, going alongside the Japanese Garden to the Monaco Cathedral, and then through old narrow streets filled with tourist shops to the royal palace, guarded by a single soldier in military dress garb wielding a very recent automatic rifle.

Monaco Cathedral
Monaco Cathedral

We made our way back down the causeway that the palace is perched upon and made our way back to the van. Then back to the Chateau.

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