If you live in Newcastle you can't fail to have noticed the Baltic on the…
While we were visiting Northern Ireland recently we made a trip to see Exploris Aquarium. The aquarium is situated in Portaferry, near Strangford Lough. The aquarium is well situated as Strangford Lough is a marine nature reserve and an area of special scientific interest. It is worth a drive along the side of the lough, the views are stunning. We spent the morning visiting Mount Stewart, a National Trust house with fabulous gardens, and then made our way to Exploris. The aquarium itself is easy to find, it is well signposted and there is plenty of parking space.
When entering the aquarium we passed a little lake where we stopped to watch some ducks. There were plenty of seagulls standing guard on the roof of the building as we entered. There was a small queue waiting to get in which moved fast. We paid and were given a map of the Exploris and told the times of the shows. When we arrived there was a demonstration just starting at the discovery pool so we went to have a look.
The discovery pool is a big circular pool in the middle of the floor. The children were able to stand around the tank while a man explained all about the fish in the tank, all of them native to Strangford Lough. The talk was interesting, although a little hard to hear over the excitement of the children. As well as listening the children got a chance to touch some of the sea creatures. Starfish were handed round, after explaining they had to be really careful. It was lovely to see the little ones carefully washing them with water as they passed them to each other. We also got a chance to touch the rays as they swam past. Strangely they felt like sandpaper, I imagined they would have felt slimy.
After the demonstration we wandered past the other exhibits, it was hard to take photos as the aquarium was quite dark and it would have upset the fish to use flash. There was a wide variety of sea animal in tanks, jelly fish hung floating gently in the water, undulating as they moved round the tank.
Lobsters lurked under rocks, their antenna quivering as they peaked out curiously watching passers by. There was plenty to look at and see. I liked this spiky fish, I have no idea what it is called. When we were little we used to spend our holidays in Southern Ireland and we caught smaller versions of fish like this in rock pools. They became known as Frilly Fred’s.
The rays were my favourite fish, there was another pool of them and they swam up to people as if they wanted to be stroked. Most impressive was the open sea tank though. It is an enormous tank containing 250 tons of sea water. You enter a cave underneath and can see all the fish swimming around. The tank contains fish like cod, conger eels, halibut and many others all found in British waters. It is fascinating watching them swimming around and you can also view the open sea tank from above.
As well as being an aquarium Exploris is also a seal sanctuary. When an orphaned, injured or sick seal pup is found they can be taken to Exploris who will teach them the skills they need to survive in the wild and make sure they recover. When we visited there were quite a few baby seals in special tanks who were at different stages of recovery. Some were being given fish soup as they could not catch fish whilst others were learning to eat real fish. They were being kept warm under infra-red lamps until they were strong enough to go into the main pool.
The main pool had about four or five seals swimming about, we kept seeing their little heads bobbing out of the water. One of them seemed to be sleeping on the side of the water and was getting into some interesting poses. I am not sure how it managed to sleep like this.
When we visited the Aquarium was threatened with closure. At the moment it appears that they have been saved and will be being refurbished, which is great news. It would be a shame to lose the only aquarium in Northern Ireland as well as the seal sanctuary which is doing great work.
You can easily spend two or three hours wandering around Exploris Aquarium. There is a cafe on site so you can stop for something to eat and also a gift shop. You can find more information on their website http://www.exploris.org.uk/ and there is also a seal cam so you can watch the seals.