I spent most of my childhood in the little-known, secluded seaside town of Miami, Florida, and as such I am no stranger to aquariums. An appreciation of marine science was ingrained in me at a young age, and though it never went farther than that, (note how my career has focused almost exclusively on the written word), visiting aquariums remained a favorite pastime. I tend to seek out aquariums every time I travel to a new place, and usually spend at least one happy afternoon whiling away the hours with the sea creatures on display before I continue on with the more traditional vacation spots.
But this time, I was in Crete, Greece. Crete! Land steeped in history, mythology, culture, and scenic backdrops to make your Instagram followers quake with FOMO envy. I had more than enough to occupy my time, between the gorgeous ruins and crystal clear ocean waters. I was busy with museums, new towns, pink-sand beaches, and mountain hikes. Did I really need to seek out another local aquarium?
Of course I did. How could I not want to see it, after seeing signs plastered all over town? Since I was traveling with my sister, I posed the question to her: did she want to see the CretAquarium? She immediately assented, especially after she found out it was located right next to a dinosaur theme park. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The CretAquarium is located in the town of Gournes, just 15km outside of Heraklion. From where my sister and I were staying in Wine Dark Sea Villas’ Villa Bella Mare, it was about a 20 minute drive down the leisurely A90 highway until the Old National Road, and from there it was a simple matter of trusting the maps app implicitly. The CretAquarium is located in what is best described as an ‘educational compound,’ where two other science-based attractions, a planetarium and the aforementioned dinosaur park, greet you before your final destination. I followed the signs along the winding road to the aquarium and found, to my surprise, a lovely beach. While I suppose the possibility of a beach should have been something I was prepared to take advantage of, considering Crete is in fact an island, the idea of making my trip an aquarium/beach day combination had not crossed my mind. My advice is, on your next trip to Crete, always keep a bikini in your back pocket in case of emergencies like this.
The CretAquarium is a large, rounded building, adorned with a picturesque mosaic of an undersea scene. In a shallow fountain, a model submarine used for undersea exploration sits as you make your way to the entrance. A giant, plaster octopus that sits above the door, beckoning in visitors who have since found themselves distracted by the numerous and overly affectionate stray cats that wait for visitors to share their café snacks. Still, the promise of air-conditioned relief is often enough to pull people away, and was in fact just what I and my sister needed to prompt us to enter the building before another cat begged for our attention.
My ears were instantly bombarded by the sounds of excitable children who were eager to move through the line and into the tunnel leading to where all the fish lay, which was perfectly understandable. But I chuckled at the sheer number of couples, all either in their late teens or early twenties, who were eager to use the low lighting and shimmering lights as the way to set the mood for a romantic interlude. My sister and I, for our part, wasted no time in indulging in the whimsy of it, posing for pictures in the low blue lighting of the entrance. Speaking of color, the CretAquarium is actually the first aquarium in the world, not just the country, to be accessible for the colorblind. Upon entering the museum, should you need it, there are QR codes posted for a free app called ColorADD that the aquarium has made an effort to integrate into their exhibits.
Inside the aquarium proper I was initially taken aback at the dulcet tones of Enya playing softly over the speakers. I had never considered how aptly her music is suited for watching large, colorful fish drift beyond a pane of glass as artificial light filters through the waves. It was an interesting and, dare I say, oddly beautiful experience. I felt that this might be the closest I could come to experiencing what a day in the life of an undersea creature must feel like, minus the constant struggle for survival. I’m sure the music was accurate to what they would experience. It was incredibly appropriate, and my sister remarked as such. The informational plaques, written in both Greek and English, were incredibly informative. I had no idea of the richness of biodiversity in Greece’s waters. I knew that there was a variety of fish, to be sure. Cretan seafood is one of my favorite things about the island. But learning that Crete’s waters were also home to such a variety of life was a wonderful truth to discover.
In between the ethereally lit fish tanks, their bluish silver water casting ripples of light on visitors and the surrounding alike, hung suspended skeletons of sea creatures from another age. Whether they were casts or originals, I could not say, but I stared in wonder at what was supposed to be the skeletons of ancient turtles and bottle-nosed dolphins. I admired the great rock faces of what could have been incredible undersea reefs, ruined temples sunk beneath the waves, and a shipwrecked wooden ship that housed a dummy dressed in an old diver’s suit hunting for sponges. The sculptors of the interior structures in this aquarium truly outdid themselves, as the fish had temple ruins, pots, and grand rock faces to swim around.
Besides its incredibly calming atmosphere powered in no uncertain terms the melodies of Enya, was that it inspired a desire to swim, to immerse myself in the very seas I had just glimpsed into. I kicked myself as we left the building, and my sister stared wistfully at the waves as the summer heat descended upon us once again. The sounds of children playing in the waves carried over to us as we walked to the car, and my sister groaned as the wave of heat hit us in the face as the hot air from my grandfather’s ancient Honda roared to life.
It was then that she recommended we try to visit one of the other places in the educational compound, since we had nothing else planned for the day. I shrugged and checked google for the hours. We had exactly one hour and forty-five minutes left to explore the place, so I nodded and made our way up the meandering road back to Dinosauria.
As I pulled up to the entrance, I had to laugh at the homage to the gates of Jurassic Park. The large Tyrannosaurus Rex head sat frozen in a triumphant roar over the entrance, and as we made our way inside the building we decided to refrain from paying for the extra experiences like the interactive science exhibits, seeing as we only had a short time to explore before we closed the place.
We passed under the legs of a large t-rex and into a dimly lit room with casts of enormous fossils. The bronze head of a triceratops was almost gold against the burgundy carpeted room, and the large stegosaurus skeleton cast a mighty shadow on the wall. To leave the room, we had to pass through a rotating tunnel of stars and comets, disorienting us as we traveled ‘back in time’ to the room portraying the annihilation of the dinosaurs. The room was a stage of chaos as the great comet plummeted to earth, destruction and chaos everywhere we looked. The children we passed along the way ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ at the tumultuous scene, concerned for creatures frozen in their swan song. My sister ducked under a wicker nest, giving a small start as she noticed the ‘dying’ plesiosaurus hidden among the reeds, but we cut our horsing around short as we heard the excitable sounds of what promised to be more children coming through the tunnel. In our most dignified manner, we followed the path to another tunnel leading to the outdoor area, and stood face to face with ‘life-sized’ animatronics.
Giant moving figures of rubber, metal and paint roared to life as we stepped onto hidden triggers in the pavement. We were greeted by sounds of the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods all at once, as if a mad Greek John Hammond had sprung up and made these creatures real again. Well, perhaps not too real. I’ve seen animatronics of more fluidity, or paleontologically accurate paint jobs. However, the size and scope of these creatures was massive. Wandering the paths took us past an enormous Tyrannosaurus Rex that swung down its mighty head as we slowly walked around it. I marveled at the giant apatosaurus, the feisty liopleurodon frozen in the man-made lake, and of course at the fun sculpted rocks and waterfalls that lined the pathway. Though the heat was unforgiving, I had to admit that being out in the sun was more bearable when surrounded by giant, moving, and sometimes roaring dinosaurs.
Perhaps you think I’m teasing when I say this, but I had the time of my life here. I enjoyed the whimsy of it, not to mention how genuinely well researched and educational this experience was. Though I could not understand the children asking questions of their parents or their parents’ explanations, I heard how in awe they were of the giant beasts. And I have to admit, I was impressed by the scale of the attraction, and how well maintained their dinosaurs were. It was certainly a place I would go to again, especially if I had rambunctious children who wanted a break from all the culture that the adults were more likely to enjoy.
After a brief respite from the heat at the outdoor (but covered) café, where we shared a giant liter of water, my sister and I spent a few minutes contemplating buying enormous dinosaur plushies in the gift shop before ultimately deciding it was time to leave. Though the evening ahead of us was spent at our villa’s pool, relaxing as the heat finally subsided, we left the place with a sense that our day had been well spent. Perhaps the next day we would visit another archaeological site, or a highbrow museum. But today we had indulged in whimsy, and I believe every vacation needs just a touch of that along the way.
By Katarina Kapetanakis