His Serene Highness Albert I, Prince of Monaco, was surely one of the most useful royals of the past few centuries. Starting from the Grimaldi family's modest principality—the Rock and its surroundings cover less than a square mile of the Côte d'Azur—Albert found a novel way of expanding his domain: He became an oceanographer, one of the earliest. And on his Rock, flush with a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean, he built the Oceanographic Museum to house all the weird and wonderful specimens that he collected until his death in 1922, at 73. Today the museum attracts a million visitors a year.
For most visitors the main attraction is probably the modern and perfectly charming aquarium that occupies one of the lower floors. Its centerpiece is a two-story tank containing a living coral reef. Between the coral columns, reef sharks and shovel-nosed rays lie on the sandy bottom, seemingly oblivious to the shadows cast by the gaudier fish flitting about in the water above. The museum's real treasures, however, lie up the grand staircase on the second floor. There some of the prince's own artifacts and specimens are displayed in three magnificent rooms with 40-foot-high ceilings and giant windows looking out on the beckoning sea. "The thoughts of travel that have long tormented me make me take a greater interest in the sciences with each passing day," wrote 16-year-old Albert to his "dear Papa" in 1864, "and I cannot wait to surrender myself entirely to my nautical tastes. . . ." Thanks to the Grimaldi bank account, he was able to combine both passions on a series of four well-appointed yachts. The last, dubbed the Hirondelle II, was specifically designed for oceanography. At 273 feet the steamship was larger—and with its polished wood decks and cabins considerably more beautiful—than many research vessels today.
Photographs courtesy of Oceanographic Museum, Monaco.
|Prince Albert I of Monaco (right) dedicated his life to ocean exploration. He mapped the Gulf Stream (above) by casting these brass floats, with return-to-sender notes enclosed, into the Atlantic. Today his aquarium is home to coral reef fish including (bottom, top to bottom) the tomato anemone fish, the frogfish, and the black-backed butterfly fish. |