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Oceanographic Museum

Listed under Museums in Monaco.

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When you think of Monaco, marine research centre is not exactly the first thing that springs to mind. Why spend those precious hours inside when you could be winding in and out of Grand Prix turfs, gazing down into the curiously clear water of the port or pricking your finger on a cactus in one of the many gardens? So it was with a distracted air I set out to conquer the Oceanographic Museum.

Built under Prince Albert I, a keen navigator himself, the musée has been standing since 1910, counting none other than Jacques Cousteau as one of its directors. As I approached I couldn’t help but notice how artfully placed the musée is, planted firmly atop a vertical cliff, towering over the glimmering Med below. It looked poised and expectant, as if daring a critic to come and peek inside. The dotted crowds of jubilant children outside the front steps seemed to soften the solid stone exterior. What was it that lurked behind those majestic columns that drew such throngs of excited visitors?

Stepping inside, I couldn’t help but follow the rugrats’ chatter down to the aquarium first. In a flash, we were in another world. The kid in me took over! I scurried over and pressed my nose against the glass tank in awe. There it was, complete with dopey sea turtles, gliding sea rays, and scores of darting fishies, an underwater universe.

Eager to see more, I peeled myself off the central tank and scooted to the individual displays. With over 4000 species, this museum is an impressive tribute to the Mediterranean Sea and its crawly inhabitants. The walls are lined with dimly-lit tanks brandishing everything from immobile seahorses and fatally poisonous rockfish to an exhibitionist octopus and the entire cast of Finding Nemo. The jellyfish cisterns are particularly engrossing: you could stand there watching their flowing, transparent bubbles for hours. It’s rather difficult to force yourself back upstairs.

Keeping in tune with its target younger audience, the museum’s photography policy is surprisingly lenient. It’s particularly difficult to stop clicking away as you enter the expansive upper levels with a 13 metre squid specimen dangling gruesomely above and a whale skeleton, spanning the entire chamber, bearing upon you. Here, an array of model laboratories, wooden submarines and chillingly real diver waxworks introduce us to the world of marine research and its logistics. The side staircases lead up to a unique collection of jarred starfish and lobsters, glistening pearls, and historic naval documents. Underwater photos and video footage, as pioneered by Jacques Cousteau, provide an animated visual backdrop to the teethy grins attached to the various vertebrae.

The museum’s roof terrace is as much of a delight as its interior, with superb views of Monaco and the surrounding sea. Catching a glimpse of the yacht-laden Monte Carlo, I finally surfaced from my blissful underwater trance and remembered I still had the rest of the city to explore. Whether it’s the nostalgic nature of aquariums in general or the sheer size of the specimen sea monsters, the Oceanographic Museum sparked a youthful spring in my step.

Written by  Caroline Podsiad.

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