Save Exploris: Twitter users snap as campaign to save Northern Ireland's only aquarium goes global
'The end of Exploris would mean the end of Portaferry'
A photo campaign to save Northern Ireland's only aquarium has kicked off on Twitter with users posting images of themselves holding 'Save Exploris' signs.
Supporters from around the world have joined the campaign with images from Argentina, Canada, Chile, Israel, Taiwan and the United States being posted using hashtag #explorisgoneglobal.
Some of the images can be viewed in our gallery above. The Twitter photo campaign is the brainchild of Ardglass native Sean Clifford (@thejiffster).
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph from Honduras, Mr Clifford, a former Exploris worker, said: "Northern Ireland has a rich marine ecosystem. It is travesty if we can't educate people about it.
"It is important that the future generations of kids have an awareness how to interact responsibly with it. Exploris has done this with countless children before.
"Will closing Exploris down help Northern Ireland? No. It is bad for the local economy and for the region too. The micro will affect the macro."
Mr Clifford added: "We need investment to update and provide a world class experience. This is entirely possible. We should all fight for this. Invest, prosper and be proud."
Tweeting with hashtag #saveexploris social media users have also been asking people to sign petitions and recalling their memories of visiting the Portaferry-based aquarium.
Sinn Féin MP for Fermanagh South Tyrone tweeted: "My kids used to love a day out there. Special times."
Former Miss Northern Ireland Zoe Salmon posted: "So sad! I recall filming there, such a wonderful place."
Ards Borough Council will vote on Wednesday on whether the aquarium will be kept open.
Earlier this week local councillor and businessman Joe Boyle said: "This would not just be the end of Exploris, but the end of Portaferry."
The SDLP man, who runs a chip shop in the Ards Peninsula town, estimated that without the aquarium and the 100,000 visitors it brings every year, trade will drop by at least 30%.
"People don't just visit Exploris, they come back time and time again.
"If it closes, all of a sudden we are going to find 100,000 less visitors coming to Portaferry," he told the Belfast Telegraph.
"That's certainly enough for people to lose their jobs, if not for businesses to go under.
"There are businesses here, cafes and bars, which have not existed without Exploris."
One local slowed his car to greet Joe, and when asked what he thought the effect of closing Exploris would be, he simply said: "It will be a ghost town."
Anna Curran who runs the Rock Home Bakery agreed with this bleak assessment.
Currently she welcomes customers from across the world, eager for her sweet treats. Without Exploris she said she expects this will stop.
"We get Americans, Canadians, Australians, French and German customers, they are always asking for something Irish," she said.
"Wheaten bread and soda farls are the most popular. If Exploris went, that would all go too." Portaferry may be pretty picture postcard nestled on the banks of Strangford Lough but already it is struggling as the lines of for sale and to let signs along the main streets testify.
Hillsborough couple Brian and Myrtle McCauley were enjoying a weekend at the Portaferry Hotel, but said they felt there is very little other than Exploris to attract visitors.
"It would be terrible if it closed. There is very little else here, especially for families," they said.
Manager of Strangford Lough and Lecale Partnership Caroline Nolan said Portaferry is the seventh most deprived area in the country.
The then Northern Ireland Aquarium was opened in 1987 to try and regenerate the village.
"The closure of Exploris would be a huge blow to the town and the whole area," she said.
"It would also be a huge blow to marine conservation. Strangford Lough is a marine conservation area and Exploris showcases that.
"Despite very little investment, Exploris continues to attract huge numbers of visitors."
Local man James Elliott was distributing posters to draw attention to the online petition to keep the aquarium open which last night had already attracted more than 1,000 signatures after just 24 hours.
In the aquarium itself yesterday, many visitors had come for fear that they may never get the chance again if Ards Borough Council votes next Wednesday to close it.
Harry Kerr from Glengormley said he was disappointed at the idea Exploris could close.
"That's why I came here today," he said. "I think the aquarium is very good."
Sheila and Bert Montgomery from Donaghadee said they think it would be a shame to close it.
"We have been to quite a few aquaria, this one is impressive," Bert said.
Templepatrick man Stephen Riley said he felt Exploris is a "tremendous asset".
"It is unique," he said. "My grandchildren have been here for two hours and they are still as excited as when they arrived."
Why is the aquarium marked for closure?
Exploris is owned by Ards Borough Council and was to be sold off to a private company Livingstone Leisure.
But the company has pulled out of the deal – reportedly over pensions arrangements for the 18 staff who work in the centre.
Last Wednesday evening the development committee of Ards council voted in favour of closing Exploris instead of continuing to run it themselves or seeking another private buyer.
It costs £550,000 a year to run and attracts around 100,000 visitors each year.
DUP councillor Trevor Cummings, who chairs the development committee, said it was a difficult decision.
"The level of expenditure required is not sustainable in this economic climate, when we face so many financial pressures and regrettably, we feel this is the only realistic option," he said.
But other local representatives and academics are horrified by the committee's recommendation.
Dr Julia Sigwart, the director of Queen's University Belfast's marine laboratory in Portaferry, said Exploris is the most important asset the council owns.
"It is a world-class aquarium that showcases the spectacular and internationally important marine diversity of Strangford Lough," she said.
"We work together on scientific projects and Exploris staff regularly advise our scientists and students on the tricky business of keeping marine animals happy and healthy.
"Our colleagues and visiting scientists from around the world all visit the aquarium and everyone marvels at what a treasure it is."
Exploris Aquarium in Portaferry has been open for more than 25 years. It includes a sanctuary for sick or orphaned seals. It also plays a role in research with links to the Queen's University marine laboratory.
The centre originally opened in 1987 as the Northern Ireland Aquarium to showcase the diverse local marine life. It was officially reopened as Exploris in 1994 by Prince Charles.
Tweets about "#explorisgoneglobal #saveexploris"