The original building was known as "Aquarium de Noumea" and was founded in 1956 by Dr René Catala and his wife Ida.

From an early age René Catala, a native of the Vosges region in France, took an interest in the natural sciences, and particularly the study of insects. He spent 17 years in Madagascar, where he was a consultant to coffee, pepper and vanilla plantations, and where he founded a scientific entomology laboratory set on the edge of the forest. He focused his own scientific research on the butterfly Urania, considered one of the most beautiful in the world.

In 1936, during a trip to Nossy Be, an island in the north-west of Madagascar, he discovered the wonder of coral reefs. The whole course of his career as a biologist took a permanent turn. He became obsessed with the idea of founding a scientific research outfit in close proximity to coral reefs to study the astounding variety of marine life he found there... just the kind of environment that can be found in New Caledonia. He approached the French research institute ORSTOM (now called IRD) and suggested the construction of an aquarium within the Noumea premises of the institute.

ORSTOM declined, but Dr Catala decided to go ahead anyway. He packed his bags, sold all his possessions, left Madagascar and arrived in New Caledonia determined to accomplish his dream of building a marine biology research centre.

He set out on this project with the help of five devoted companions (Yves Merlet, Michel Laubreaux, René Gail, Marcel Angles, Simone Angles) and of his wife Ida Stucki. Each made his or her contribution, but it was Catala who e. spent to his last penny to build "his" aquarium So much so that the City of Noumea had to grant him a subsidy so that he could complete construction.

The choice of a location for the Aquarium was governed by :

  1. the position of the land granted by that the government of New Caledonia
  2. the quality and diversity of marine life in the nearby reefs
  3. the fact that the waters of the bay were particularly rich in plankton

An flow through seawater supply

From the start, the Aquarium of Noumea was able to present to the public a wealth of specimens which had never before been exhibited live. The Aquarium became rapidly known among the scientific community for the discoveries made by Dr Catala on coral reef ecology, most prominently, the fluorescence of certain corals. One of these species bears his name.

The display of live specimens, particularly invertebrates, in a setting that mirrored as much as possible their natural habitat set the Aquarium de Noumea, apart from other establishments of the time and contributed largely to its notoriety. This was made possible by, aflow through of clean seawater from the nearby Baie des Citrons, and extensive use of natural light. This set up has been retained for new Aquarium.

Located between Anse Vata and Baie des Citrons, with 60 000 visitors per year, the old Aquarium of Noumea was the most visited attraction in New Caledonia. During the 90's, it became apparent that the old Aquarium needed a complete overhaul. The existing premises were obsolescent andit was decided to build a completely new facility rather than trying to patch the old one. Construction didn't actually begin until 2003, due to a variety of complications. In 2005, the old Aquarium closed down, and the new premises, renamed Aquarium des Lagons were inaugurated in 2007.