Visitors to London’s Kew Gardens are typically drawn to the humid and exotic jungle ambiance of the Palm House, but plants are not the only attraction to be found here: A watery world of beguiling creatures hides in the basement beneath this verdant Victorian greenhouse.
The impressive Palm House aquarium has several exhibits that recreate natural marine ecosystems, such as mangroves, coral reefs, estuaries, rock pools, as well as a number of freshwater displays recreating the river systems of the Amazon and Congo rainforests. The purpose is to highlight the wider ecological role that plants play in various ecosystems around the world, and to educate visitors about the importance of protecting aquatic biodiversity.
The most interesting tanks are perhaps the coral reefs, which house a kaleidoscope of vibrantly colored fish. Some of these are instantly recognizable due to their appearance in Finding Nemo, such as the clownfish and tang fish. But there are also denizens of the deep that are far more obscure and unfamiliar, like the bizarre spotted garden eel and the extraordinarily shaped and named hairy filefish.
Beyond the fish, these tanks are home to many enchanting marine creatures of mesmerizing beauty, such as sea horses and sea anemones, and enthralling but sinister animals like stingrays and jellyfish that are captivating to watch as they glide through their watery realms or pulsate with a hypnotic grace. Less aesthetically appealing but interesting creatures such as crabs and shrimp can also be seen as they scuttle around.
In one of the freshwater tanks, the notorious red-bellied piranha swims with a languid but menacing ease, eyeing up visitors with its gaze, which combined with its rotund form, makes the piranha look like some kind of Amazonian Al Capone. In a neighboring tank that represents the Congo river system, a comically chubby freshwater puffer-fish patrols its home, its skins looking like an LSD-inspired canvas of psychedelic patterns.
Update June 2019: The Kew Gardens Underground Aquarium is no longer open, and the displays have been moved to the Princess of Wales Conservatory. The information in this post is a record of the aquarium’s previous incarnation.
Know Before You Go
Kew Gardens is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday through Sunday. The entrance fee is £16.50. The spiral staircase that leads down to the basement aquarium is located in the center of the Palm House and is signposted.