Aquarium Pula – an introduction to Istria’s undersea world

As a small peninsula, the sea’s a vital part of Istria. We come on holiday to sit by it, swim in it and take boat trips across it: but how much do we know about the watery world, hidden beneath? 

Opened in 2002, Aquarium Pula is a fascinating place, where education is as important as entertainment. But it is far, far more than your average tourist attraction: housed in an Austro-Hungarian fort on a beautiful tip of the Istrian peninsula, you can learn about Istria’s under-explored watery coast, the whole Adriatic and the wider aquatic world. I went to meet its founder and owner, Milena Micic, a woman passionate about the sea, to discover more.


Understanding the sea

Fish in the Adriatic tank at Aquarium Pula, IstriaBorn in Pula, Milena has a deep love and fascination with the sea and the Adriatic in particular. She trained as a marine biologist and worked in academia for many years, studying the whole marine environment, but had a desire to introduce ordinary people to the wonders just off the Istrian coast. “I didn’t set out to build an aquarium,” she explained. “It was just the natural outcome of wanting to teach people about the sea.” 

She started with a small aquarium, in a cellar in Pula, but it kept flooding. “I guess that’s why the rent was so low,” she said, with a laugh. It proved popular – but too small and damp. With ever-more visitors and specimens, it was time to move to bigger (and drier!) premises.  


An aquarium in a fort?

Fort Verudela is situated on the very tip of Istria, just south of Pula, and is in a designated tourist area with hotels. This old Austro-Hungarian fort, just one of thirty which ring Pula, was built in 1886 and had long been abandoned.

Fort Verudela home to Aquarium Pula, Istria“Coming from Pula, I knew the fort well,” explained Milena. “I regularly walked past it as a child, when playing by the sea. With its large rooms and beautiful stonework, I thought it would be the perfect setting for my tanks.”

At the time, an Italian company which owned the surrounding tourist facilities had usage rights for the fort, even though it is owned by the City of Pula. However, by the turn of the 21st century, it was being used as a dump – and an incinerator, to burn old hotel furniture!

When Milena approached the company to see if she could use the fort for her aquarium, they were only too happy, as it had become something of an eyesore. “It was a lucky combination of events,” she said. “If I’d needed to approach the City directly, I suspect I’d still be awaiting permission, today!”

Seeing the fort’s potential took some vision, as by 2002 it was totally derelict: every window was broken, it was full of rubbish and its moat and roof were jungles. But with help from family and friends, working after work and at weekends, Milena started the mammoth clear-up and renovation. “We had no money, so had to do everything ourselves,” she said. “Even though my parents supported me every step of the way, they thought I was mad and that it would never last.”


Going from strength to strength

Aquarium Pula's staff by fish tank in IstriaI’m pleased to say Milena proved them wrong. After six months intense effort, Aquarium Pula opened in September 2002 with three staff, three large tanks and an education programme. Now, ten years on, it is going from strength to strength.

The aquarium was pretty much a hit from day one, even though they didn’t have much to show at the start. “With the team’s knowledge and enthusiasm, everyone who visited said it was a wonderful place,” said Milena, “and their positive feedback fuelled our determination to improve.”

Over the years the aquarium has gradually expanded, until now it fills most of the fort. The ground floor is largely dedicated to the Adriatic. “Each room represents a different part of themarine environment,” explained Milena. “We teach about the sea in general, using the Adriatic as a case study.”

Sunbathing fresh water turtles in Aquarium Pula, IstriaUpstairs there are tropical marine and fresh water fish, a laboratory and the marine turtle rescue centre. Over time, bigger tanks were installed and the moat became a home for cold fresh water fish and turtles. In 2010, celebrating Darwin’s bicentenary, they established an evolution exhibition: in particular I loved the information on the blue whale (did you know its heart is bigger than a Mini?)


Marine turtle conservation

Marine turtles have been an important part of the project since the very beginning. “The local fishermen regularly brought me injured turtles and asked what to do with them. It was one of the reasons I needed a bigger place,” Milena explained.

Marine turtle in rescue centre, Aquarium Pula, IstriaToday, Aquarium Pula is the only marine turtle rescue centre in Croatia. Ill and injured turtles are sent here from all along the Adriatic coast to be nursed back to health, for re-release into the wild. You can help with this work by adopting a turtle and, if you’re lucky, your visit will coincide with a turtle release date. The next, in the middle of June (15th June at 18h), coincides with  ‘World marine turtle day’ and I have my space booked!


Sourcing exhibits

Mustelus (dogfish) - a type of shark, Aquarium Pula, IstriaLocal fishermen have supplied much of the aquarium’s Adriatic exhibits and, while I was chatting with Milena, a small shark (a dogfish) arrived. “Croats are very attached to the sea,” she said, “and now they’re far more aware of the environment, and the importance of looking after the sea, than they used to be. If they catch anything unusual, along with marine research institutes, I’m usually one of the first to know!”

They also get given donations. “Our piranha were a donation,” explained Milena. “They’d grown far bigger than their owner expected, so he gave them to us – but even we have problems with their size, so we’re currently preparing them a nice, big new tank.”

When they go out on field trips with the boat, they also catch their own exhibits. But long-term, Milena would rather not take animals from the wild. Her dream is to renovate another fort and establish a captive Adriatic breeding programme to supply European aquariums, so the sea will no longer need to be plundered for specimens.

Tropical fish in Aquarium, Pula, Istria“It’s hard keeping fish alive in tanks, especially with visitors coming past,” explained Milena. “Fish are very sensitive and shock can easily kill them. They find visitors, especially noisy children, very disturbing, so unfortunately we need to replenish our specimens regularly.”

Always looking for ways to improve conditions for her specimens, Milena is hoping Octopus in Aquarium Pula, Istriato add special foil to the tank glass. “That way, we’ll be able to watch the fish without disturbing them … and it’ll be interesting to see if they act differently in private.”

Having said that, she still has some of the specimens she brought with her from her cellar aquarium. “That one and that one have been with me since the start,” she said, pointing to two sea bream in the large Adriatic tank. “So long as the tank is big enough, fish are usually happy,” she continued. “Apart from the octopus. Octopuses are very intelligent so they need to be kept amused. We regularly give ours toys, but she keeps blocking the water flow system with them, so I’m trying to think of something new for her.”


Ambitious future

Aquarium Pula's atrium - todayNext up is Milena’s most ambitious project – reclaiming the fort’s atrium. It runs the height of the building and, after its original massive gun was removed, it was capped with a glass cupola. That too has long gone and the empty space was being used as a garbage incinerator. She started working with the Croatian Ministry of Culture on this in 2006 and serious discussions began in 2010. “Are they providing the funding?” I asked. “Oh no, we have the raise the funds. They just provided permission for the work. And, we also had to get permission from the owner, Pula City as well.” It sounds as if just getting this far has been quite an achievement.  

The atrium will contain two large tanks and be capped by a new cupola, under which will live reptiles, butterflies and insects. Hopefully all the administrative hassle is now behind them and work is due to start very soon. It’ll be a three year project – a floor a year – and Milena hopes to have the first big tank (a shark tank) ready next summer (2013).


Educational course

Seahorses - Aquarium Pula's one of the few places to breed them in captivityEducation has always been Pula Aquarium’s main purpose: introducing people to the sea is why Milena founded the place, and they often hold guided tours and tailored courses for students or interest-groups who want to know more. Croatian school kids come regularly – a party was just leaving when I arrived. But also kids from further afield. “In Germany, students have to take a field trip in their senior school year. Many now choose to come to us for a programme in the lab, on the shore and in the boat,”  Milena explained.

Older students also regularly visit: for example, students will be coming from Sheffield University (in the UK) in October, to learn more about the Adriatic and the complexity of the sea.

You can also take part on your visit. During the summer they hold marine research sessions in the lab, where you can take part in marine chemistry experiments and watch demonstrations twice a week from 11:00 –12:00. If this all sounds too much like school for you, come at feeding time (12:00 – 13:00), and you can watch everyone being fed.

If all this land-based stuff has caught your enthusiasm, the Aquarium also runs half-day field trips on their boat, where you learn about the sea, its biology, geology and chemistry … and catch some wildlife.

Magnificent view from the roof of Aquarium Pula, IstriaFinally, as you leave, a point from me – please note the donation box in the ticket office. Aquarium Pula is totally privately funded and, amazing as it sounds, gets no state or EU funding. “We keep trying but always seem to fall into loopholes,” explained Milena. So your gate money is vital in keeping this fascinating place going and ensuring the future of marine turtles along the Adriatic coast. Milena didn’t say this, but obviously any additional donations are much needed and much appreciated and will, of course, be put to good use.

For more information on Aquarium Pula, please visit their website.

 First published June 2012


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