‘Will there be any whales Daddy?’
We hadn’t even arrived at the National Sea Life Centre in Birmingham and already the awkward questions had begun.
But any potential disappointment over the lack of whales was soon forgotten as my wife, two children and I arrived at the centre and headed straight to the newest residents – a colony of Gentoo penguins.
These birds, as I am sure you know, are natives of New Zealand, and the dozen here have been bred in captivity.
The centre’s new Penguin Ice Adventure, which is cooled to Antarctic temperatures, offers visitors the chance to see the birds in action.
We were able to perch on viewing platforms and watch as, just inches away, the penguins waddled around, braved the icy waters for a swim and athletically jumped back out on to the rocks.
There is also the chance to have your photo taken ‘within’ the penguin colony (a tip: for extra authenticity, don’t leave your coffee cups on show!).
When we’d had our fill of penguins, it was time to move on to the rest of the centre.
The layout, which is very accesible and ideal for pushchairs, takes visitors through a number of different themed zones.
These include the rock pool area where our eldest, Sam, got the chance to touch a crab and a starfish (although poke is probably a more accurate word).
Children are given an activity book to complete as they make their way round the centre, but I suspect attention spans will need to be a bit longer than our children’s are to actually fill them out in full.
The Nemo’s Kingdom zone was another winner, with nearly all the characters from the film represented (apart from the whale...), and this led neatly on to the area containing the rays.
We were there for feeding time and watched fascinated as the rays jumped halfway out of the water in front of the crowds of visitors.
A member of the centre’s team also gave a talk full of interesting facts (for example, if you’ve ever eaten rock salmon, you’ve probably eaten shark) and these take place at various times and at different locations within the centre.
The jellyfish zone is wondrous, with the translucent creatures lit up so you can see them better, and the seahorses held our attention for some time too.
The otters were nowhere to be seen when we passed their enclosure (no coincidence, perhaps), we gave the 4D cinema a miss as Matthew was getting tired and, besides, we had sharks to find.
Yes, sharks. There may not have been any whales, but the promise of sharks kept us going and we were rewarded when we reached the magnificent underwater tunnel.
Here you get the chance to walk under the water as all sorts of sea creatures pass over your head, including hammerhead sharks and a giant green sea turtle, which really was enormous.
It was a definite highlight of the visit and a great way to ensure visitors of all ages come away with some special memories.
Before you leave there is the well-stocked gift shop and (a great idea this) a soft play area where children can burn off their remaining energy.
All in all, it’s fair to say we had a whale of a time.
How to get there
The National Sea Life Centre is in the centre of Birmingham and surprisingly easy to get to by car.
Just follow the brown tourist signs after you leave the M6 at Junction 6.
There are plenty of multi-storey car parks nearby, with Brindleyplace Canalside Car Park almost next door to the centre.
Food and drink
There is limited refreshments on offer in the centre itself, but there are dozens of well-known coffee shops and places to eat all within two minutes’ walk.
You can, as we did, leave the Sea Life Centre to have lunch and then resume exploring later.
It is well worth booking tickets in advance to avoid the queues once you arrive.
National Sea Life centre, The Waters Edge, Brindleyplace, Birmingham, B1 2HL
Tickets and general inquiries – 0871 423 2110
10am to 5pm Monday to Friday, 10am to 6pm weekends