GPS 50.819578, -0.135650
Mon-Sun, 10am-5pm (last entry 4pm), £16.20
Brighton Sea Life Centre
Sea Life is a little unusual for an aquatic centre in that it's essentially built underground: Entering the main gates, you descend a set of steps into the forecourt, which is below street level. There's also an entrance tunnel that leads directly onto the onto the beachfront path, which avoids the steps.Originally built in 1872 as Brighton Aquarium, the building was designed by Eugenius Birch, architect of the beloved West Pier, and its underground vaulted crypt-like architecture makes it feel like you're exploring a lost underwater city. Which is cool. If you're not that keen on fish, you can study the ceilings. The underground setting (no windows) is probably useful for the sealife, in that it probably helps to maintain a steady temperature. The Aquarium predated both the adjacent Palace Pier (1899) and the Volks Electric Railway (1883).
The space is a lot darker than the photos might suggest. If you like dark and creepy places, you'll probably love the setting: if you're claustrophobic or don't like the dark, then this might not be the place for you. Opportunities for photography are limited, unless you can take really long exposures with your camera's "night" settings and a very steady hand. You can't use flash because it can traumatise the fishies.
Sea Life has done a good job of exploiting the location, the main hall has a cafe lined with a series of glass-sided tanks that hold various fishy creatures, such as large catfish. I liked the tank of rays, each over a foot across, all apparently in different colours and markings, gliding over each other and poking their noses out of the water, presumably waiting to be fed.
To one side of the open tanks and displays is a set of sealed tanks with twitching coral, small jellyfish, and Cassiopeia, which are basically upside-down jellyfish that sit on their heads on the seafloor, pulsing water over their fronds, and behind that there's a dark and mazelike mirrored walkway that leads you past a set of damp rainforest exhibits (and which smells a little like the tropical greenhouses at Kew Gardens. Mudskippers! Did I mention that they have mudskippers? It's one thing to see these fish-out-of-water crawling over rocks in a nature program, quite another to see a collection of real ones. If you've already seen all these creatures while diving in tropical waters on your holidays, then all this may seem a little yawn-inducing … but if you've never seen real, live, wriggling coral before, watching the creatures in real life is very different to seeing them on television.
Away … somewhere … from the main hall there's the sea tank, which is surrounded by banked seating, and where they can give public showings. The Victorian architecture and feel makes some parts of the centre feel like something from a Jules Verne film, and the centre designers have seized on this, and reworked a “Nautilus” section of corridors to look like part of some vast and ancient Victorian cast-iron submarine, complete with brown riveted walls. To top the effect off, there's a “20000 Leagues under the Sea” room, which is essentially a small submarine-themed cinema where you can sit as a group and watch a presentation.
Downside: the ticket cost is a little eye-watering, but (as with train tickets) you can get discounts if you buy in advance, online. Aquatic centres tend to be expensive places to visit (because the fish need to be fed and maintained, by specialist staff), so if you're visiting, you might want to time your trip to take in as many items as possible, and if you're only in Brighton for the day, you might not be able to set aside enough time to justify the entrance fee.
Brightonians tend to pull glum faces at a mention of SeaLife because of the price, but I suppose that it's a lot cheaper than a biology class schooltrip to the Caribbean, and anyone organising those sorts of trips is likely to be using one of the discount packages. If you're used to seeing these creatures in the wild in brilliant daylight, you might not be so impressed by seeing them in tanks in a dark underground crypt ... but most of the negative comments that people leave online about SeaLife are probably coloured by the hefty admissions price.
Verdict: probably not one for the casual daytripper, unless you really, really like fish. But if you have enough free time, and the ticket price doesn't bother you, go for it.
History of Brighton Aquarium