Visitor numbers at Exploris aquarium soar as it faces council axe
Visitor numbers at Northern Ireland's under-threat aquarium have doubled over the last two weekends, it can be revealed.
Yet Assembly members are still set to debate the closure of Exploris – Northern Ireland's only aquarium – unless funding can be found to secure its future.
The environment minister is also expected to raise the threat of closure at the Executive this week, campaigners have been told.
Despite the gloomy outlook, it emerged at a campaign meeting to save the aquarium on Monday that publicity about the closure in two months' time had led to a massive influx of visitors to the Portaferry attraction.
Exploris manager Helen Challanor told the Belfast Telegraph that visitor numbers to the attraction have doubled over the last two weekends.
She also told the 'Save Exploris' meeting that while there may be different opinions on how the aquarium should be funded in the long term, supporters should focus on keeping it open initially.
Strangford MLA Kieran McCarthy also revealed that he had requested an adjournment debate at Stormont on Exploris, to take place on November 4.
Ards Borough Council's Development Committee recommended the closure and disposal of Exploris last month.
But the full council voted last week to give it a two-month reprieve to see if the aquarium can be saved by Stormont funding.
Around 100 supporters of Exploris gathered at the Portaferry Hotel last night at a meeting organised by Nipsa to galvanise support for the aquarium.
The public sector trade union and Friends of Exploris met separately with Environment Minister Mark H Durkan on Monday afternoon to ask for regional funding for the centre. The meeting was told Mr Durkan was sympathetic to the cause and said he would raise it with the Executive on Thursday.
The Friends of Exploris group has set up a Trust to ensure the aquarium remains open. Spokeswoman Cathie McKimm said: "We are looking at models for its long term management and operation and will bring proposals to Ards Borough Council within the next month or so."
Supporters of Exploris have two months to find an alternative way to fund the running of the aquarium before current owners Ards Borough Council move to close it and dispose. It has been open for 25 years and includes a sanctuary for sick and injured seals from across Northern Ireland. More than 7,000 people have signed online petitions calling for it to be kept open.