33,000 baths under the sea

Betty Jerman gets into deep water in Birmingham.

Skate, rays and sharks are not only overhead and at eye level as you walk through the transparent underwater tunnel at the National Sea Life Centre in Birmingham, but under foot as well.

This is the re-creation of an ocean abyss 250 miles off the south-west coast and l,000m deep and the only one in the world with this degree of viewing. It holds a million litres of water, 33,000 baths worth, and cost Pounds 250, 000. Even so, it has competition from other stunning features.Visitors are entranced by a tall column filled with jellyfish. Some are as big as palms, others are the size of fingernails. These silvery parachutes drop and then ascend, fluttering like ballet dancers. Another column has shoals of mackerel whizzing around like a grand prix.

In the Sea Laboratory visitors can create a vortex in a big tub or carefully pick small creatures from a mock rock pool. There is a starfish that can discard its stomach and grow a new one, a thought to make you pause before getting your head inside bubble windows to view more marine life or studying delicate seahorses through concave magnifying windows.

The main displays are reconstructions of different watersides. The buckets and spades beach has lobster pots and a rock pool with turbot and flounder. A stream for fishermen houses trout and dace. The canal lock provides a fish-eye view and the big diorama of a Welsh mountain scene with villages and a reservoir is dramatised with lightning and thunder.

There are waterfalls and an open tank of rays, some of which are as big as a child's umbrella. They come inquisitively to the surface like the big carp in another pool. Long-legged crabs stalk their habitat, spiny starfish cling to their glass case and a ferocious-looking catfish with large canine-style teeth will take you back.

Visitors may welcome the chance to sit down and try out the virtual reality headsets. A light-hearted story tells the adventures of a drop of water, from its journey in a river to its role in cleaning teeth. The centre is packed with information, for example, seawater is brought in tankers from Weymouth and 650,000 litres passes through the centre daily. Boards shaped like sea creatures and set at child level are dotted around the building. Each asks a question on the "fishy quiz trail". Pupils can pick from a choice of answers.

The service for schools includes talks by trained staff and teacher's familiarisation visits, both of which are free. There are workbooks Life in our seas, price 40p each for key stage 1 and 2. In the schoolroom crabs and other creatures from the touch pool can be held.

National Sea Life Centre, The Water's Edge, Brindleyplace, Birmingham B1 2HL.

Tel: 0121 643 6777

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