When I booked my flight to Europe this time around, I built in an 8 hour layover in Lisbon, Portugal. I had never been to Portugal, and though I had heard very good things, I wasn’t likely to book a trip there any time soon, mostly because it was separated from other unvisited places by Spain and France.
When I got off the plane in Lisbon, I was already pretty out of it from the two flights and the mounting sleep deprivation. Per my usual m.o., I had done no research whatsoever, beyond making sure that the airport was close to town.
I walked straight out of the airport in Lisbon. It was a bit surreal to skip customs, but apparently Switzerland is Schengen, too, so my entry there counted.
Not wanting to pay some random company for wifi access, I used my kindle (check out why I bought the old keyboard version on ebay) to research what there was to do in town, and read incredible reviews of the number one attraction, the Oceanario de Lisboa.
I took a cab from the airport to the sea wall for about $10, then walked in the balmy sun until I reached a grassy area with man-made hills where children ran and screamed to their heart’s content. Through my sleep deprivation, this was fascinating, so I took a few photos.
Behind this area I found the aquarium. I paid my 16 euro entrance fee, which I thought was a bit steep, but I had no idea what I was in for. First I checked out the temporary exhibit with the sea turtles. This was pretty interesting, but ultimately underwhelming, as I had been scuba diving with sea turtles in the wild off Roatán a month before.
It then struck me that I may have made a pretty big mistake in deciding how to spend my one day in Lisbon. How could visiting an aquarium be worth it to someone who has just dived the second largest reef on the planet?
Still, I was determined to get my money’s worth, and proceeded through to the main show. There were the typical above-surface attractions, which somehow weren’t enough for me. Though they did have the loudest penguins I’ve ever heard, and the same room was also home to a small bird that would fly along the walls in big circles, to land back on the same rock from which he had alighted (that’s him on the rock in the top left).
It was also pretty cool seeing the otters up close, floating on their backs with their bellies sticking out of the water, chewing fish in the sides of their mouths.
As I kept walking down, though, I was impressed by the size of the tanks, but honestly kind of underwhelmed, and convinced that I had already had my heart’s content of fish.
The Oceanario, however, kept going and going, with massive viewing area after massive viewing area, until I had no choice but to give in.
Among my favorite things were the tank of sea dragons, the up-close encounter with just how ugly flounders are, and a tank that seemingly contained an infinite loop of fish. I could only see part of it, but I assume that behind the walls there was a massive annular habitat, in which the schooling fish turned endlessly, because I never saw any gap in the lines, meaning this living thing was basically chasing its own tail into eternity, like some kind of biological möbius strip.
These sights were in smaller tanks, and all got me pretty amped up, but I think what really impressed me were the Oceanarium’s larger tanks, which were truly enormous. From the bottom level, they towered up above me, and I was mostly just blown away by how many fish were in them, subtlety be damned.
As I hope the photos will show, it was fairly common for a fish to come to the glass so big that it dwarfed the person on the other side. There were massive fish with no tail fins, that navigated by flapping their top and bottom fins back and forth. There were sharks of different species and sizes. There were so many rays, some with long eye-stalks that looked like horns. It was pretty fascinating, actually, to see some of these guys from below, since snorkeling and kayaking had only shown me their back sides. Likewise, it was cool looking up and seeing a shark from below, all of it visible but its top fin, which stuck out of the water.
Time after time I found myself mouthing to myself “what the hell is that?,” and a good deal remains a mystery. I finally gave up and sat on the floor like the children, my mouth agape. I sat and took in the aquarium as a whole, and waited for the strangest fish to come around again so I could stare at a different part of them and try to figure out what it was.
It wasn’t until I was about to leave, though, that I saw my favorite part. I was walking past a smaller viewing area that I only gave a quick glance to. Fortunately, during that glance, I saw a penguin underwater. I then stood and stared as I saw one bird after another dive through the surface and fly around under the water. This I’ve somehow never seen before. The penguins in zoos normally just stand around on rocks, looking fancy but ungraceful. Seeing them swimming up close, it really hit home just how magical they are, darting through the water like it was nothing, playfully transforming into the fastest, sleekest versions of themselves. This was very hard to get on camera, but here’s my attempt:
After an unknowable amount of time spent staring up above me in wonder, I finally had to go and seek out something else, get a little more feel of the town with the few hours I had left.