London Almost Had Another Public Aquarium - In Silvertown Docks

London Almost Had Another Public Aquarium - In Silvertown Docks

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Photo: Shaun Low via Unsplash

When you're in need of a bit of fish-ogling in London, the London Aquarium is the obvious place to head. Otherwise, Horniman Museum does a decent line in aquatic life.

But there was almost another public aquarium in London — located in the docks at Silvertown. Biota! (the exclamation point was part of the official name) was a plan by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the wildlife charity which manages London Zoo.

It was to be the first aquarium in the world designed entirely with conservation in mind, and would have consisted of four individual areas — known as biomes — housing various species of trees and plants, invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds as well as fish, all in their own ecosystems. The British Isles, the Amazon, the Indo-Pacific, and the Atlantic Ocean would have been represented, all arranged around a central atrium.

As well as being a visitor attraction, Biota! would have been a base for scientific research and education overseen by ZSL, such as breeding programmes for critically endangered species, including Project Seahorse (Philippines), Babai River Project (Nepal) and the Cabo Delgado sustainable ecotourism project (Mozambique).

Image: Delbert Pagayona via Unsplash

Then London Mayor Ken Livingstone had the honour of announcing the plans in 2005 as part of a wider redevelopment of the area which was to become known as Silvertown Quays. He described Biota! as an 'international visitor attraction', 14,500sqm in size, to be designed by architect Terry Farrell & Partners, whose other works included Charing Cross station and the MI6 building. As is often the way with these things, the BBC news report at the time defined Biota!'s size in terms of football fields, Olympic swimming pools, and London buses.

Despite the focus on wildlife and conservation, not everyone was on board with the idea of constructing somewhere new for captive wildlife. As Londonist reported back in the day, poet Benjamin Zephaniah was among opposers of Biota! on the basis of animal welfare. ZSL later reassured us that Biota! would be underpinned by hardcore conservation and education.

Exterior of the former aquarium building at London Zoo, now covered in murals of animals including a tiger a gorilla, and penguins.
London Zoo's own aquarium closed in 2019. Photo: kitmasterbloke via creative commons

The "stunning attraction which is unlike anything else in Europe" was initially due to open in 2007. This was later pushed back to 2008. But just four months after the Biota! plans were announced, London won its bid to host the 2012 Olympics, resulting in major redevelopment and construction elsewhere in the Borough of Newham. That, combined with the global financial crisis, meant that there simply wasn't enough money to go around, and in 2009 the Biota! project was cancelled. Had it been completed, it would have cost about £80m — less than double of what was spent on the Garden Bridge before the latter was ever built.

Silvertown Venture Xtreme, a surf centre and extreme sports facility, was another aspect of the Silvertown Docks regeneration which never came to fruition, despite being named as 'London's #1 most iconic project' in TimeOut's 40th anniversary edition magazine in 2008. It would have had an indoor wave rider, a climbing wall, a scuba dive tank, an ice climbing wall and an ice bar, as well as a 100m-wide beach where people could have hired fire pits in the evening.

London Zoo's own aquarium at its Regent's Park location closed in 2019, having opened as the world's first public aquarium in 1853. Nothing fishy there though —  ZSL simply said that the building had reached the end of its working life.

Last Updated 11 September 2023

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