£12m Belfast aquarium sparks fears for Exploris

A decision by Belfast City Council to approve a £12m world class aquarium for the Titanic Quarter has prompted a political row about the future for a long established rival - Exploris, in Portaferry.

By Philip Bradfield
Thursday, 3rd September 2020, 6:56 pm
Updated Thursday, 3rd September 2020, 7:40 pm

Councillors on the council’s planning committee gave planning permission for the new ‘reefLive’ project on Wednesday night, shortly after Ards and North Down Council - where Exploris is based - raised objections with the minister with responsibility for planning.

The Exploris aquarium, on Strangford Lough, boasts marine exhibitions and a seal sanctuary and has been a tourist attraction for decades. However it has faced financial challenges, receiving £1m in emergency Executive funding in 2014.

reefLive is to be built in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter in Belfast, a world first concept in blending augmented reality with live exhibits. Organisers believe it will attract some 300,000 visitors per year after it opens in 2022.

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An artist's impression of one of the planned displays in the REEFlive Aquarium to be built in the Titanic Quarter in Belfast.

On Wednesday the chief executive of Ards and North Down Council, Stephen Reid, wrote to Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon asking her to urgently review the planning application. He said his council was “very concerned” that the Belfast project would have “wider ramifications for the town of Portaferry, its hinterland and the borough”. He also raised concerns that there would not be enough specialist staff to go around both facilities.

The Department for Infrastructure responded that it is considering the concerns but would not make any further comment at this stage.

While Exploris has required significant subsidies, a spokesman for reefLive told the News Letter that the vast majority of its funding was coming from the private sector.  “Although we have had some initial investment from Invest NI, the overwhelming share of the finances for our project will be coming from the private sector,” he said.

He added that it is normal practise for most aquaria across Europe to share staff. “We have proposed working in partnership with Exploris in terms of job sharing, shared training and marketing and co-ticketing.”

Belfast DUP councillor Frank McCoubrey said reefLive was “exciting news for Belfast” noting that it would create 50 new jobs and would boost tourism.

But north Down Alliance councillor Connie Egan, tweeted that it would have “a devastating impact on Exploris, which is not only a great tourist attraction but a sanctuary to rehabilitate seals before returning them to the wild”.

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