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We Experience the Ultimate Sleepover, Counting SHARKS instead of Sheep
sleeping with sharks

If somebody asks if you want to sleep with the fishes, it’s usually wise to run away very quickly.

But we excitedly plump our pillows, because this involves counting actual SHARKS instead of sheep in the ultimate sleepover at the UK’s biggest aquarium.

We head to The National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth for this nocturnal adventure, which is handily next to the Harbour multi-storey, where you can park overnight for a reasonable price.

national marine aquarium

We gather at the entrance overlooking the beautiful Barbican harbour with our fellow sleepover guests, giddily clutching sleeping bags and pillows. Our group has traveled from all over the UK for this experience, which takes place on select dates throughout the year.

The jolly staff welcome us into the Eddystone Reef exhibit - tonight's bedroom - which we will be sharing with a stunning array of local sharks, rays and other ocean animals, viewed through the largest single viewing panel in the UK.

Following an introduction from the team, we’re given time to explore the aquarium after hours, and grab some refreshments from the Waves Cafe.

shark sleepover

From 7.30 until 9pm, the staff entertain big and little guests with a breathless succession of unforgettable activities around the aquarium, featuring deliciously revolting and surprising facts to teach them about marine life and the importance of ocean conservation.

Highlights include the kaleidoscopic Biozone area, which is home to colourful fish from warmer waters. Here, my son delights in learning less savoury facts not covered in Finding Nemo - like clownfish covering themselves in snot for protection.

Eyes widen when staff reveal that there must always be a mother clownfish in a family, and if she dies - like Nemo’s dearly departed ma - the father’s genitals shrivel for him to become a woman. Staff quickly regret opening the floor to questions, at this point.

plymouth aquarium

The dazzling, 650,000 litre Great Barrier Reef exhibit is a neon riot of otherworldly colour. We marvel at creatures like the bizarre Humphead Wrasse fish - which look like all of the Rolling Stones combined - Honeytail Whiptail Rays and Spotted Sweetlip fish, while learning that coral reefs are animals not plants and half a billion people rely on them for food. 

My son’s favourite part is The Great British Gross Off, where the giggling, gleeful children play judges while staff compete with increasingly revolting facts, to crown the most disgusting sea creature.

Lobsters are a worthy contender, for weeing from their eyes onto each other’s faces. The Sea Cucumber bags second place, for allowing other sea creatures to live in its bum and for squirting sticky tubes from its rear end. But the winner is the Starfish, which shares its mouth with its bottom and tastes everything it walks over. You are welcome.

aquarium tunnel

Then it's time for the Sleepy Shark Show at the Atlantic Ocean exhibit, the deepest tank in the UK, which holds a whopping 2.5 million litres of water.

Starting in the Moon Pool tunnel and ending in the Demi Tunnel, we meet a beautiful Green Turtle, Sandbar sharks, Nurse Sharks, enormous Sand Tiger Sharks and Zebra Sharks as well as Eagle Rays, Stingrays and an array of magnificent creatures who call the Atlantic Ocean home.

boy and shark

At 9.30pm we settle into our sleeping bags in the dazzling Eddystone Reef exhibit, where we are served delicious, Yarde Hill Ice Cream for a bedtime movie. We’re advised to pack comfy clothes instead of PJs - in case we need to get out at night - and all staff are DBS checked.

Many of the children are soundly asleep when the projector screen peels upwards, to reveal sharks and rays for the rest of us to count, instead of sheep, with the tranquil white noise of flowing water in the background.

The aquarium’s researchers discovered that sharks can be soporific - watching them swim reduces people’s stress levels and induces sleep. I can testify to this.

aquarium movie

At 7am, we wake to the surreal morning sight of a shark and eel, staring back at us.

After packing our bedding, we head to the Great Barrier Reef exhibit to thank our aquatic hosts for letting us share their underwater world for the night. Friday, the enormous sea turtle greets us and poses for selfies with the children, photobombed by the occasional shark.

We enjoy a Full English Breakfast - plus multiple bowls of Coco Pops for my son - in the Aquarium’s Waves Cafe, which enjoys uninterrupted panoramic views across the Barbican harbour.

We exit via the gift shop, where sales from the sustainable shark toys and eco friendly mugs help fund the Ocean Conservation Trust charity, one of the leading marine conservation institutions in Europe. We leave with a cuddly tiger shark, to help our new, fishy friends, of course - one night with sharks, and my son’s Sir David Attenborough.

National Marine Aquarium, Rope Walk, Coxside, Plymouth PL4 0LF. Sleeping with Sharks is designed for 5-12 year olds and takes place on select dates thoughout the year. £50 per child. £45 per adult. Event takes place from 6.30pm until 9am the following morning.

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