Monsters of deep invade London

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The Independent Online
London's battle of the deep is about to begin. A new multi-million pound aquarium, complete with 5,000 species of fish from the world's oceans and rivers, is to open its doors at Easter as the capital's latest tourist attraction. Sand, tiger and brown sharks, up to three metres long, will prowl the venue's Pacific tank. Their presence will mean that for the first time in its history, the fusty 70-year-old aquarium at London Zoo - without a tank big enough for any but the smallest of sharks - will have a tough competitor.

It costs pounds 8 to visit London Zoo, and for that fans of the marine world get a trip to a dilapidated grade II listed aquarium. Visitors pass through a dimly lit, echoing viewing hall, complete with peeling paint, the smell of rising damp and the rather disturbing sound of dripping water.

While the zoo's aquarium was undergoing a hasty facelift, two miles across London the former canteen of the Greater London Council's County Hall was being transformed into a state of the art marine world. For pounds 6.50, visitors will view a series of giant tanks replicating the world's varied watery environments. Jellyfish bob around in underwater currents created by a tank resembling a huge washing machine. In the Barrier Reef tank, purple and yellow angel fish dart between the spiky red fins of lion fish.

While zoos are dedicated to research and conservation, aquariums are all about entertainment - and are big business. So popular is the marine world with tourists, that Japan now has more than 240 marine centres, and there are 100 in the United States. In Britain visitors flock to Sea Life centres. Deep Sea World in Fife was recently voted Scotland's best new tourist attraction of the decade. A sister venue is under construction in Chester.

The London aquarium's spokeswoman, Lisa-Jane Statton, says the public's appetite for aquariums is due to the rough and tumble of modern life, and "our desperate quest for beauty and tranquillity".

Technology has also boosted the growth of aquariums, enabling the building of bigger, stronger and more spectacular tanks. At the London aquarium, for instance, visitors pass through dark tunnels filled with screens of running water, the sound of breaking waves and the smell of sea salt.

London Zoo, however, is not to be deterred. The Zoological Society of London has applied to the Millennium Commission for pounds 50m to build a new national aquarium in London's docklands. If this goes ahead, London Zoo will once again be the biggest fish in the pond.