Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 31 August 2014

Portaferry’s underwater treasure

A young boy enjoys the underwater delights in Exploris

As Portaferry’s Exploris aquarium celebrates a quarter of a century, Linda Stewart reveals 25 facts about Northern Ireland’s leading marine attraction.

1 The aquarium was opened in 1987 by Ards Borough Council at Portaferry on the shores of Strangford Lough — which is home to nearly three-quarters of all the marine species found in Northern Irish waters. It was extended, and reopened by Prince Charles in 1994 as Exploris.

2 Exploris is now one of the top 10 paying tourist attractions in Northern Ireland. Its seal rescue work has progressed in leaps and bounds since staff made do with a garden shed and seawater pool to care for the first ‘patient’ in 1989. The first purpose-built seal sanctuary opened in 1999.

3 Since the aquarium was launched it has welcomed more than 2m visitors through its doors.

4 The seal sanctuary has cared for 354 rescued seals.

5 The newest arrival at the seal sanctuary is Jubilee, an orphaned female seal pup aged two to four days and found at Dundrum yesterday.

6 Back in the 1980s and 1990s the aquarium used to rescue loggerhead turtles that had come to grief during their migration.

7 One of the best known rescues was Frankie, a seal pup found on the runway of Derry City Airport in 2007. She was seriously underweight with several injuries when she bellyflopped her way onto the runway, stopping planes from landing or taking off.

8 Another famous pup was Spud, who sought refuge at a machinery hire firm in Strabane last year. The grey seal spent much of the day scurrying about WT Hire before staff from Exploris arrived to take him to his new home.

9 Members of the public can watch rescued seal pups going through their daily routine via ‘seal cam’.

10 When seal pups are rescued, they have to be quarantined in hospital pens. The pups are tube-fed four times a day.

11 After a week or two whole herring are introduced to the diet. Seals are force-fed until they are able to eat by themselves.

12 Once they are self-feeding and free from illness, seals are moved to the outdoor nursery pond. When feeding well, they are microchipped and moved to the big pond. Once they reach their target weight they are released back into the wild.

13 When seals are rescued, members of the public can adopt a seal for a £20 share.

14 Every year the seals are given themed names. This season the seals will be named after well-known Olympians, except for Jubilee, found yesterday.

15 One of the more unusual denizens is a rare white lobster. Around one in 1,000 lobsters display this unusual coloration.

16 Staff believe the aquarium’s oldest animal could be one of the halibut in the Open Sea Tank, as this species can reach 100 years of age or more.

17 One past star was 12lb Larry the lobster, who was donated by the Lobster Pot restaurant in Strangford after his age was estimated at 50 to 55 years.

18 Famous visitors include stars of Countryfile, including John Craven, Matt Baker and Julia Bradbury.

19 Exploris is powered by green electricity from a hydro-electric plant managed by Strangford Lough Wildfowlers and Conservation Association.

20 In February 2008, a 6ft leatherback turtle was spotted swimming in Strangford Lough, the first ever recorded within the boundaries. The animal was found dead five days later and brought back to Exploris before being taken to Dublin’s University College for a post-mortem.

21 The male turtle had sustained a massive wound to its skull, possibly caused by a boat propeller. A cast of its shell has now gone on display at Exploris.

22 Last year the three largest conger eels were released back into the wild. Congers only breed once before dying.

23 The centre is appealing for a disused boat to make a wreck where three new conger eels can make their home. Contact the centre at 028 4272 8062.

24 The centre has just launched a hugely popular new display of moon jellyfish.

25 An Ocean Olympians Exhibition (June 30-September 3) is marking the Olympics.

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