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9 Curious Sea Animals at Lisbon’s Oceanário + Ocean Conservation in Portugal

With hundreds of species of marine life, there's lots to see at the Oceanário de Lisboa. Keep an eye out for these curious creatures! Plus, learn about initiatives in Portugal contributing to ocean conservation.



One of the most popular family-friendly activities in Lisbon, Portugal is the Oceanário de Lisboa, an interactive public aquarium that houses 7 million liters of water and 8,000 species of sea creatures! 


It’s also a modern architectural landmark in Lisbon’s Parque das Nações neighborhood, sitting adjacent to the Rio Tejo (Tagus River). Its origin story starts with the 1998 World’s Fair. When Portugal won the bid to host the global event (1998 Lisbon World Exposition), it designated the site in a civil parish known today as “Parque das Nações.” At the time, it was an industrial zone. So to prepare for the expo, the area was completely redeveloped and revitalized into a cultural hub. The Oceanário itself was constructed to align with the expo’s theme, “The Oceans: A Heritage for the Future.” 



Today, the Oceanário is one of Lisbon’s most visited cultural sites, welcoming approximately 1 million visitors each year. For comparison, the entire population of Lisbon’s city proper is just over half a million! The main attraction of the Oceanário is its central aquarium which houses over 100 marine species. With that many sea creatures, it’s impossible to spot them all. But there are a few curious looking ones we suggest looking out for.


Prehistoric Wonders



Sand Tiger Shark and Ocean Sunfish - Two of the most imposing presences in the Oceanário’s main aquarium are the sand tiger shark and ocean sunfish (ironically called peixe-lua in Portuguese, which means moon fish). Despite their appearances, they’re both slow-moving, gentle giants that have swam the ocean’s waters for centuries. Believe it or not, the sand tiger shark belongs to the same order of sharks as the prehistoric behemoth, the megalodon shark. 


Unforgettable Faces



Turbot - If Picasso were to paint a fish, it might look something like the turbot. Interestingly, this fish is born with symmetrical features but as it develops, its right eye migrates to the left side of the mouth. Its body also flattens such that both eyes end up on the surface near its mouth. 


Note: When in Portugal, you’re likely to see turbot offered in restaurants (you’ll see it on the menu as pregado) because it inhabits European coastal waters and can be locally caught.


Pufferfish - You can spot two types of pufferfish at the Oceanário, the blackspotted pufferfish (a vibrant yellow color) and the guineafowl pufferfish (blue speckled color). For culinary daredevils in Japan, pufferfish is a delicacy. But for aquarium spectators, the pufferfish will catch your attention for another reason — it has four teeth that are fused together into a beak-like form, an expected sight with an uncanny resemblance to a rodent. 


Unicornfish - Narwhals aren’t the only unicorns of the sea. Unicornfish have a small, horn-like protrusion on the tops of their heads. At a glance, one might think Pinocchio was turned into a fish instead of a real boy. Although scientists aren’t sure why unicornfish have a horn, one theory suggests that males use it to attract females. While both males and females have the appendage, only males can change the color of theirs and catch the sight of females.



Strange Shapes



Cuttlefish - Despite its name, cuttlefish are actually cephalopods with features that make it distinct from its squid and octopus relatives. It has eight arms plus two longer tentacles that extend from its head and mesmerizing “W”-shaped pupils. To help maneuver in the water, it has a pair of undulating fins that wrap around its body and that it can camouflage into even more extravagant colors and patterns than the octopus with males exhibiting a striking zebra pattern during mating season.


Note: Cuttlefish are a Portuguese gastronomic specialty in restaurants (you’ll see them on the menu as chocos). According to the Oceanário, it’s a sustainable seafood to consume either because of its abundance and/or because it’s captured or farmed in a sustainable way. 



Guitarfish - Hiding its flat body in the sandy bottoms of the ocean, you’d think it was a ray. Swinging its tail right and left, topped with two dorsal fins, you’d think it was a shark. What you’re actually seeing is a guitarfish, another ancient sea creature on this list that’s been around for over 100 million years! Despite its unusual appearance, it’s more commonly distributed around the world’s oceans than one would think, including the Atlantic Ocean from northern Portugal to Angola. 


Seadragon - Another master of disguise! The seadragon’s ability to change colors and its fantastical looking leafy appendages make it adept at masquerading along kelp and seagrass. This delicate creature is native to Australia only. Due to the seadragon’s popularity for home aquariums in the 1980s and its targeted use for alternative medicines in Asia, Australia deemed it a protected species. In New South Wales, an individual that takes or possesses a protected species can be fined up to $11,000 and 3 months in prison. 



Curious Friends

Sea Otter - You won’t see these in the Oceanário’s main aquarium, but rather in one of its four re-created marine habitats. We included sea otters on our list not for their curious appearance, but for their curious demeanor. They are incredibly smart animals with high energy and an even greater appetite — they need 10 to 15 pounds of food per day just to fuel their high metabolisms. Their boundless curiosity may stem from the fact that they're always on the hunt for food, foraging through crustaceans, clams, urchins, and more.



Ocean Conservation at the Oceanário and in Greater Portugal

In addition to the Oceanário de Lisboa’s work to educate and connect people with the oceans and the marine life that it supports, it also collaborates with institutions to promote ocean sustainability by supporting and funding scientific research as well as marine biodiversity conservation projects. 


This commitment reflects Portugal’s longstanding efforts to become conservation stewards of the oceans given the country’s profound historic connection to the ocean and its exploration during the Age of the Discoveries. Today, Portugal has jurisdiction over nearly 50% of European maritime waters (one of the most extensive maritime areas in the world and the second largest in the European Union) — a legacy of that era. Its sea territory extends over 50,000 square kilometers (more than half the size of Portugal’s landmass) and its Exclusive Economic Zone stretches out over 1.6 million square kilometers! 


Here are just a few initiatives and programs in Portugal that are helping protect the world’s oceans and sustain the marine life that inhabits it. 


Co-Pesca II - The Oceano Azul Foundation’s Co-Pesca II initiative promotes a co-management system in the Reserva Natural das Berlengas (Berlengas Natural Reserve) focused on goose barnacles (percebes in Portuguese). 



The Berlengas are a small set of islands off the coast of Peniche in Portugal with pristine waters that make it a popular snorkeling and diving destination. And if you’re wondering about the need to preserve goose barnacles, these little creatures are a delicacy in Portugal. Inside their rubbery neck is a tasty little morsel that tastes like a salty clam. It’s not for everyone, but they are popular to fish for because they demand high prices in Portugal. 


So it’s important to manage their population to preserve ecosystems in Portugal such as that of the Berlengas. Co-management fisheries are a partnership between the government and fisherman which can lead to higher income for fishermen by mitigating inequities in the supply system while also increasing the quantity of barnacles in the area. New to the concept of co-managed fisheries? Learn more here


Blue Generation - This ocean literacy program, also supported by Oceano Azul Foundation, is a partnership with the Directorate-General of Education (part of the Portugal’s Ministry of Education) to educate a “blue generation” that understands the ocean and its crucial role in maintaining the delicate balance of life on earth. The program specifically aims to bring ocean literacy to the classroom for 5 to 9 year-olds in Portugal by equipping teachers with the knowledge, tools, and resources to teach about the ocean and the importance of conservation. 



Blue Azores - The Blue Azores program is a partnership between the Regional Government of the Azores, the Oceano Azul Foundation, and the Waitt Institute. Its objective is to establish and maintain Marine Protected Areas in at least 30% of the sea around the Azores and lead the way in ocean conservation.


Part of this endeavor supports research that helps better understand the sea in the Azores and its implications for ocean conservation around the world. After two expeditions embarked upon by National Geographic’s Pristine Seas, Oceano Azul Foundation, and the Waitt Institute, Blue Azores put together super insightful scientific report for the Azorean government on the state of the waters that surround its islands, including the new discovery of a hydrothermal vent.



ECOMARE - In 2017, the Universidade de Aveiro opened the ECOMARE Laboratory for the Innovation and Sustainability of Marine Biological Resources, an entity that encompasses both the Centro de Extensão e de Pesquisa em Aquacultura e Mar (Center of Extension of Aquaculture and Marine Research) and the Centro de Pesquisa e Reabilitação de Animais Marinhos (Research and Rehabilitation Center for Marine Animals). And none other than President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa officially opened the center.


Housing multiple tanks and an intensive care unit, the laboratory has had a 100% success rate in recovering sea turtles, 33% success rate in recovering marine mammals, and a 42% success rate in recovering marine birds. Globally, the success rate for rehabilitating marine animals is just 25%!


ParticiPESCA - Led by Portugal’s national arm (ANP) of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and partially funded the Oceano Azul Foundation, the ParticiPESCA project is implementing co-management for the fishing of octopus in the Algarve. So far, the project represents over 700 fisherman throughout the region!



Observatório Golfinhos no Tejo - While not specific to the ocean, in 2022 this project opened an observatory to monitor dolphins in the Estuário do Tejo (Tagus Estuary) to better understand seasonal, spatial, and behavioral patterns in the dolphins’ use of the estuary. The observatory is located in Algés just west of Lisbon’s city center.


Porto Santo Sem Lixo Marinho - Translated to “Porto Santo without Sea Trash,” this public campaign in Madeira aims to eliminate plastic waste in Porto Santo’s ocean waters by educating locals and tourists of the problems such waste creates. The campaign included an initial study of the type of trash that appears in Porto Santo and its seasonality, as well as a collaborative effort with local businesses to promote no waste.


Ocean Alive - A one-of-a-kind cooperative endeavor, Ocean Alive engages a community of local fisherwomen, called Keepers of the Sea, to protect seagrass meadows in the Sado Estuary. Why seagrass meadows? They support the food chain in the estuary’s ecosystem as a nursery habitat for prey of the resident dolphin population. They’re also an important habitat for fish and shellfish upon which the local fishing economy relies. 



Ocean Alive currently works with 18 Keepers of the Sea to support its Mariscar Sem Lixo (Shellfishing without Litter) initiative as well as eliminate the docking of anchors on the seagrass meadows and other destructive fishing practices. Fisherwomen who participate are rewarded with a best practice certification label that encourages the public to buy from them.


Lisbon Center for Ocean Innovation - While it doesn’t exist yet, the Oceano Azul Foundation is proposing a new innovation center in Lisbon to offer support and resources to startup companies that are developing and sustainable solutions for new uses of the sea, namely those focused on marine bioresources and marine biotechnology.


 


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Sources


Cal Academy of Sciences - Leafy Seadragon


Directorate General for Natural Resources, Safety, and Maritime Services - Maritime Zones under Portuguese Sovereignty and / or Jurisdiction



Florida Museum - Common Guitarfish


Governo República Portuguesa - Proteger 30% das Áreas Marinhas: Portugal Antecipa Meta para 2026


Marine Life of South Australia Inc. - State Government to Protect Seadragons & Sea Horses


Mindfloss - 11 Facts About the Sand Tiger Shark


Mindfloss - 11 Facts About the Sand Tiger Shark


National Geographic - Cuttlefish


National Geographic - Pufferfish


NSW Department of Primary Industries - Protected Species in NSW: Weedy Seadragon


Ocean Conservancy - Guitarfish Rock: Here’s Why


Ocean Conservancy - The Unique Unicornfish


Oceanário - Turbot


PBS - Animal Guide: Cuttlefish


Público - A Protecção do Oceano, Portugal e um Plano de Acção para a Meta de “30x30”


Público - Ecomare, um Centro que Alia a Ciência à Reabilitação de Animais Marinhos


Shedd Aquarium - 5 Reasons to Raise Your Awareness about Sea Otters

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