A trip to Vancouver is not complete without a visit to its famous aquarium, writes P.K. Stowers

Many people travel to British Columbia to get a taste of the area's unique natural beauty and wildlife. But if you don't have the time for whale watching, the next best thing is Vancouver Aquarium.

Located in the spectacular Stanley Park, 10 minutes' drive from downtown Vancouver, the aquarium first opened in 1956 and has grown in reputation and size over the past 60 years. It now occupies more than 9000sq m of space and contains some 300 species of fish, 56 species of amphibians and reptiles, and more than 50 mammals and birds.

Its philosophy has changed over that time too. In 1964 the aquarium was the first to capture and train an orca - and the killer whale show was the centre's primary attraction.

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However in 1996 a local bylaw was enacted that prevents the aquarium capturing wild whales and dolphins.

Today there hasn't been an orca on site since 2001 and the only other cetaceans it has are those that have been rescued, or injured and deemed unreleasable back into the wild.

At present this includes a Pacific white-sided dolphin named Helen and a young false killer whale named Chester. It has also two adorable beluga whales and two Pacific harbour porpoises. There are also outdoor enclosures for the facility's rescued sea otters, sea lions, penguins and fur seals.

You can see all of these animals in regular "training sessions" that take place throughout the day. The aquarium's focus these days is on research and education rather than "shows" - although the whales and dolphins still do entertaining jumps and tricks for fishy treats and to keep them active and alert.

The aquarium is split into various zones: tropical, Amazon, frogs, British Columbian wildlife, Pacific Canada, jellyfish, and the Discover Rays exhibition.

FlyOverCanada, an attraction in Vancouver.
FlyOverCanada, an attraction in Vancouver.

This pavilion is an especially interesting idea that seems to be immensely popular with children. It consists of a large, shallow oval pool in which small rays circulate around the edge. Everyone is encouraged to put their hands into the pool and run their fingers over the slimy backs of harmless fish. This display is only open at certain times of the day however so check the session times when you arrive.

Another highlight is the immense Pacific Canada tank, which includes 260,000 litres of salt water and a huge number of fish and invertebrates from the nearby Strait of Georgia.

The tank's glass sides mean you can experience life underwater without getting wet. Each of the large displays and tanks has accompanying information stands and videos to help educate visitors on the plight of the world's water-dwelling animals and the importance of protecting their natural habitats. But there is still a lot to be gained from just losing yourself in watching fish swim around the gorgeously detailed enclosures. It's remarkably calming - assuming a school party of under-10s isn't standing right beside you.

FlyOver Canada

If you have time after your aquarium visit, head back into downtown Vancouver and Canada Place - the massive harbourfront cruise liner terminal. At the far end of the terminal and up a couple of flights of stairs is FlyOver Canada - a unique flight simulation ride. Following a 10-minute video, guests are taken up to the main seating area. Here you are strapped into a padded chair before the floor moves away and you are left facing an enormous curved cinema screen. What follows is an amazing 20-minute "flyover" of stunning Canadian scenery. You see everything from Vancouver at night, to icebergs, and vast prairies to tall snow-peaked mountains. At key points, mist, wind and even scents are aimed at you to produce a great virtual reality experience. Adults C$24, students $21, children $17.

CHECKLIST
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To get to the aquarium from Downtown Vancouver take the number 19 bus on West Pender St to the magnificent Stanley Park. This ride takes less than 10 minutes and costs roughly $3. If you have the time, Stanley Park is huge and worth exploring, but if the aquarium is what you have come for, it is well signposted from the bus drop-off point. One adult ticket costs C$31, seniors and students are $22, children aged 4-12 cost $16 and under-3s are free. You should allow yourself at least a couple of hours to explore the aquarium properly.

Online
destinationbc.ca