Cornwall lives and breathes the ocean.
The small region reaches out into the sea, surrounded by water on all sides and teeming with marine life.
This abundance of local sea life has inspired a collection of great aquariums and sanctuaries to visit during your trip to Cornwall. They make for a wonderful rainy day activity and are a favourite of kids (and kids at heart!).
Here, we’ll break down some of our favourite local aquariums, as well as some other marine activities you can get up to in Cornwall. Specifically, we’ll talk about:
- Top Aquariums
- Where they’re located
- Must see attractions and marine life
This article is aimed mainly at families with children, but these activities can be plenty enjoyable for adults too!
Newquay Blue Reef Aquarium
Towan Promenade, Newquay, Cornwall TR7 1DU
Overlooking the coast on Towan Beach, Newquay Blue Reef Aquarium is a favourite of tourists and locals. In my experience, it makes for brilliant morning out – you can walk down and enjoy the beach before you explore the Aquarium to get out of the midday sun (or rain…)
They offer 40 different displays, each with a different collection of incredible sea creatures. These exhibits range from colourful coral reefs to the ominous depths of the ocean, with a huge variety of animals to see.
Most notable is the huge 250,000-litre ocean tank at the heart of the facility!
This tank holds all kinds of exotic creatures, including sharks, brightly coloured reef fish, a huge southern stingray, and the famous Omiro, a rescued loggerhead turtle. It offers a wonderful close-up view of a reef teeming with life.
Other popular features are the giant octopus, known for being highly interactive with guests, and the piranha tank.
Additionally, their huge ocean tank has a walk-through, underwater tunnel that lets you get right up close to the animals. Strolling through fish, sharks, and other marine life swimming all around you is an experience unmatched by anything else!
They even have a nursery at Newquay Blue Reef. Here, you can view tiny baby seahorses, incubating shark eggs, and much more.
Alongside each of these spectacles is a range of informational materials to teach you about their physiology and life in the ocean. The frequent feeding events and talks by staff throughout the day further this educational experience.
The staff are friendly, passionate, and endlessly patient when answering questions from captivated children and adults. It’s evident that the people working here care deeply about their work, and are incredibly knowledgeable about marine life!
The aquarium is a great day trip any day of the year. In summer, it can be a fun side activity when you visit the beach, while in the winter it makes for a great rainy-day filler.
However, there have been some complaints about overcrowded hallways during peak seasons. It might be worth keeping this in mind if you don’t like crowds or have mobility needs that could be impacted.
Blue Reef Aquarium is wheelchair and pushchair friendly, but does lack a changing station.
Overall, it’s a great half or full-day experience for families that offers an extensive range of things to do and see. If you love animals, the ocean, or conservation, it’s a wonderful place to learn and have fun all at once.
Town Quay, Fowey, Cornwall PL23 1AT
Perched on the historic Fowey Town Quay, the smaller Fowey Aquarium offers a fantastic range of local sea creatures to view.
The building isn’t huge, and won’t take very long to explore compared to some of the big city aquariums. However, the entry fee is small and the exhibitions are packed with interesting fish.
The most notable residents here are the huge conger eel, brill, turbot, pollack, sponges, crabs, and lobsters. The touch pool at the centre of the building is a special favourite of children, for good reasons!
Here, they can interact directly with crabs, small fish, and starfish under the careful supervision of staff.
The aquarium places great focus on connecting the public with the local fishing industry. They stock only local animals, sourcing them mainly from local fishermen. They also put emphasis on using local providers of food whenever possible.
Unlike most aquariums, Fowey Aquarium receives a daily intake of fresh seawater at low tide!
This not only reduces the need for filtration but also introduces many local species of worms, sponges and sea squirts for visitors to see. However, it can seriously reduce water clarity on some days.
The facility is wheelchair and pushchair friendly. They also welcome dogs!
The staff here are knowledgeable, always willing to answer the million questions that arise from excited kids’ interactions with the sea creatures. They’re friendly and welcoming to guests, creating a lovely experience overall.
If you need something to do on a quiet, rainy day, this aquarium is an amazing choice!
The Cornish Seal Sanctuary – Helston
Gweek, Helston, Cornwall TR12 6UG
I absolutely love seals – so this place is one of my real happy places!
The Cornish Seal Sanctuary is a Sea Life Trust sanctuary and charity that spends its time rescuing, rehabilitating, and releasing baby grey seal pups, alongside a ragtag collection of other marine life.
These pups are picked up from all around Cornwall. Most often, this is because they are injured, sick, or otherwise incapable of surviving in the wild.
Once at the facility, they are looked after with the ultimate goal of always being released back into the wild if possible.
Every year from September to March, they rescue over 70 pups from certain death. This is a huge service to keeping the local species thriving.
When you visit, you get to tour their medical facility, as well as their many different enclosures for animals at different stages of recovery and rehabilitation. They also house a collection of permanent residents who are unable to survive in the wild.
The animals you can see here include Grey Seals, Southern Sea Lions, Humboldt Penguins, Otters, Eurasian Beavers – and even sheep, goats, and ponies!
As you meet each animal, staff will guide you through their individual journeys – a far more personal touch than most aquariums.
The feeding and talk events are also excellent. It’s clear from a single visit that the staff here are passionate, knowledgeable, and deeply care about their mission. This passion shines through in every aspect of the facility.
Outside the exhibits, you can also enjoy the amazing views of the river and estuary, take a break at the cafe, or set the kids loose in the pirate play area. It’s a full-day activity that people love coming back to year after year.
Though the buildings are wheelchair-friendly, the steep hill from the car park can make disability access difficult.
Luckily, there is a regular golf buggy that runs between the buildings and can accommodate mobility devices. They also offer accessible toilets and baby change stations.
If you want to support an incredible mission and enjoy a great day out with the family, this is the place to do it!
National Marine Aquarium – Plymouth
Rope Walk, Coxside, Plymouth PL4 0LF
Before you bite my head off – I know this one is in Devon – but that’s pretty close AND it’s worth the trip.
With more than 4000 marine creatures of all kinds, the National Marine Aquarium boasts the title of the largest aquarium in the UK!
In total, the facility has 4 million litres of water that holds a huge variety of sharks, fish, rays, and other weird and wonderful creatures.
If you’re looking for variety, this is the place to find it. There are 6 zones in total, each featuring a huge variety of inhabitants.
The most famous residents here are Friday the green turtle, Neptune the giant pacific octopus, and Howie the huge sand tiger shark.
There are heaps of events available here of all varieties, aimed at both kids and adults. These include activities like snorkelling, behind-the-scenes tours, yoga, family sleepovers, and others. No matter who you are, there’s probably something you’ll enjoy.
Their tickets are a lot more expensive than most of the places on this list. However, they do last for 12 months, so if you live locally it can be a good investment! This isn’t ideal if you are visiting from afar, however.
The accessibility is excellent here. There are ramps and lifts throughout, disabled parking bays, and even free wheelchairs available onsite.
However, it can get pretty busy during peak season. If you don’t like large crowds or have mobility needs that may be affected, it would be better to visit in off-peak times.
The Waves Cafe offers a variety of hot and cold food to suit any weather. It’s a great place to take a break between exploring.
The NMA is a wonderful place to get lost in on a rainy day. It offers something for everyone, especially if you sign up for one of their many events. It’s a definite must-see if you’re in the area!
Mevagissey Harbour, Mevagissey, Cornwall PL26 6QQ
Sitting on the bustling Mevagissey harbour, the Mevagissey Aquarium started its life as a lifeboat house in 1897.
Since then, it’s been used for all kinds of purposes, including as a gun emplacement in the Second World War. For the last 50 years, it has held a small aquarium.
Here, you’ll see a variety of local species ranging from fish to crustaceans. This includes some pretty massive crabs and lobsters, some of which are decades old.
The facility is small and is best as a short detour from a day of exploring the local sights. However, it’s completely free, so you really can’t complain! If you choose to donate, all money is used for the upkeep of the local quayside.
On its own, the aquarium isn’t much to write home about. However, paired with a full day at Mevagissey Harbour, it makes for a great day of exploration.
The port as we know it was first built in 1774, but evidence of the location being used as a port dates all the way back to mediaeval times. Now, it’s still a fully functional fishing port, as well as a popular tourist destination.
While you visit, you’ll be able to experience the harbour itself, as well as its museum, local shops, the lighthouse, gorgeous walks, events, and restaurants. You certainly won’t be bored!
A great time to visit is in the last week of June. This is Feast Week at Mevagissey Harbour, where there is a week-long rota of activities that culminate in an impressive fireworks display.
If you want some small-town peace and spectacular views, make sure to stop in for a visit!
Boat Trips And Sea Safaris
If you love marine life, then you’ll love the countless boat trips and sea safaris offered all over Cornwall!
On these trips, you’ll get to see all kinds of local wildlife. Most often, this will consist of dolphins, cormorants, gannets, puffins, sunfish, seals, minke whales, and humpback whales. Plus the odd shark!
Many tour guides know the best places to see each of these and can get you some great views of these amazing creatures.
You’ll also get to enjoy the incredible coastal views of Cornwall at the same time! These are especially dazzling from offshore, where you can fully take in their majesty and size.
The local castles are especially captivating. It’s hard to really understand their grandeur until you see them perched up on the cliffs from below.
Many of the companies also offer fishing trips, suitable for beginners and experts alike.
A couple of the most popular companies for these kinds of trips are Mermaid Pleasure Trips in Penzance and Cornwall Seafari in Fowey. However, you’ll likely find a version of these tours in almost any seaside town.
They’re a great family activity, letting you get right up close and personal with the open ocean surrounding Cornwall.
Rock Pools On The Beach
Finally, here’s an activity that’s captured the hearts of children and adults all over the country!
The excitement and wonder that comes from rock pool exploration is truly unmatched, no matter your age.
There is an excellent website run by Cornwall’s local expert on rock pools, Heather Buttivant. It’s a great place to start if you’re interested in rock pooling, and works very well for identifying any of the creatures you might discover.
To sum up Heather’s expert advice, here’s what you should know before rock pooling:
- If you’re completely new, there are many rock pooling events organised by different charities all over the country.
- You’re also more likely to find interesting animals with more eyes looking and some expert help.
- Always stay aware of the tide! Aim to arrive a couple of hours before low tide and always keep an eye out for the rising water.
- Make sure to dress properly; waterproof clothes if it’s wet, and sunscreen if the weather’s hot.
- Proper shoes are also essential. Ideally, you should wear wellies or beach shoes to protect your feet from rocks and pinching claws.
- Work your way up the beach, starting at the lowest points. This is where you’ll find the most interesting creatures, usually!
- Look in small crevices, under rocks, and other cold, dark places. Just make sure to put all rocks and seaweed back where you found them.
- Try not to touch any of the sea life. You never know what stings, bites or pinches! Touching creatures with hands, nets or shovels may also damage some soft-bodied animals.
- Finally, keep still and quiet near a pool. Watch and wait for movement, colour, and shapes that are unusual.
- Most rock pools look completely empty at first – but if you are patient, you’ll soon see that each one is teeming with all kinds of vibrant life.
Introducing Eliot, the Editor here and Cornwall local with a wanderlust spirit and an insatiable appetite for adventure. With a passion for the great outdoors, he can often be found catching waves on his surfboard, scaling peaks on a hiking trail, or discovering hidden gems in his exploration of Cornwall.