Glitz, glamour and romance – there are few places in the whole world where these qualities are so evident. This tiny principality in the Mediterranean is home to movie stars and moguls and every year attracts thousands who dream of living like the brightest and the best who make their homes in Monaco.
Oceans Apart and Humans before their time
For over a century, Monaco has been renowned as the playground of choice for European millionaires, for the glamour of the Casino and the lure of a tax heaven combined with the pleasant and sunny weather have served as magnets for wealthy aristocrats and professional athletes through the years. Yet this tiny principality has another side to it that some may not be familiar with. It was here on the “Rock” that the science of Oceanography had its first dedicated research centre. In 1910, the Prince of Monaco, Albert I, opened the Oceanographic Institute here, dedicated to the research of the seas and the collection and analysis of specimens collected.
A collection of curiosities
The Institute today is split into the research institute and the Museum. The museum is located in Monaco and is set on an imposing rock cliff facing the Mediterranean Sea. At the entrance, in a whimsical reference to the two Beatles songs, there is a Yellow Submarine and an Octopus’ Garden.
The exhibit starts at the basement, with a large aquarium. The aquarium was the first of its kind in the world, bringing sea life from the deep up above the surface on land. One of the highlights is the reconstruction of a coral reef from Djibouti. This reef has been set up to run as a complete eco-system, much as it originally would have been out at sea.
Other tanks hold a wide variety of sea life, some ugly and extremely dangerous. The plaice is a very intriguing fish, because of its chameleon-like ability to change its colour to adapt to its surroundings. When the octopus has just laid its eggs, it will guard it tenaciously from any prey, and the octopus in the tanks display this behaviour as well. Ugly rockfish are extremely poisonous, and are renowned for their ability blend into the seafloor while awaiting unsuspecting prey to come by.
In the upper floors of the Museum, you will find the collection of specimens gathered by Prince Albert I himself. An accomplished naval officer, Albert loved to go out to sea and made trips in his yacht, L’Hirondelle. He converted the yacht into a research vessel and carried out expeditions to the Azores and to the various corners of the Mediterranean. What he brought back home was nothing short of breathtaking for his time.
Sea monsters from the ocean’s depths
A giant squid is believed to be capable of growing to a length of 18 metres. Rare and found in very few museums, the Architeutis Princeps is a true sea monster capable of battling a sperm whale and camouflaging its skin very quickly. This species is named after Prince Albert himself, and a specimen is at home in the Museum.
Another specimen directly linked to the Prince is a skeleton of a Sperm Whale found washed ashore at Pietra Ligura and believed to have been shot by the Prince himself. It is noteworthy because it displays the healing process which took place in the whale’s head after a collision with a ship.
Apart from the live and preserved specimens, the Museum also features exhibits of documents and photographs taken on various expeditions. The late Jacques Yves Cousteau was once the head of the Institute and his early work in underwater photography brought the world undersea to the living room, with movies such as the Silent World and his TV series pioneering the art and science of underwater movies. Some of these footages appear often and together with the early underwater photographs forms an invaluable record of early underwater exploration.
Remnants of prehistory
Another consuming interest of the Prince was ignited when prehistoric skeletons were found within his domain. Ever curious and inquisitive, the Prince set out to collect specimens on soil within Monaco and also in nearby parts of Italy. The findings of these excavations form the collection of the Museum of Prehistoric Anthropology. Early ancestors of humans are featured, from the pre-human Australanthrope to the early forms of man — Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon.
One type of early man has even been named after the Prince — the Grimaldi type. Specimens have been found from periods before and during the ice age glacial periods. The exhibits also include specimens from the early human settlements of the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods.
The Museum of Prehistoric Anthropology is located within the Exotic Garden. A hillside covering 11, 500 square metres is home to a variety of cacti and other plants capable of surviving dry conditions. These plants have fleshy trunks capable of conserving water and often produce colourful blooms at various times of the year — cacti in the spring and summer, euphorbia in the autumn and aloes in the winter. Monaco has a very rich legacy of scientific research despite its small size, and this wealth of knowledge is worth discovering on your next visit to the Rock.
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