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Britain > N.Ireland > Co.Down > Exploris Aquarium

A window into Northern Ireland's underwater world


Open Sea Tank
Discovery Pools
Seal Sanctuary
Exploris is in Portaferry, next door to the marine nature reserve of Strangford Lough. Three quarters of all the species in Northern Irish waters have a presence here. Strangford flows past the town, through the fast-running tidal narrows and out to the Irish sea, making this aquarium the perfect place to display creatures from both habitats.

Strangford Lough.
Photo Northern Ireland Tourist Board
The exhibits send you on that same journey between lake and sea. You're shown the different plants and animals, and how they work together to form functioning communities. You can see the unique characteristics of each area.
Strangford Lough, for example, is notable for its diversity. The fast moving tides in the south and the calmer mud flats in the north host very different creatures within a relatively small area. Meanwhile, if you leave the lough and look around the coastline, you might have trouble spotting anything at all. That doesn't mean there's nothing there - the fish here are particularly good at camouflaging themselves against the rock and sand. Hiding is trickier in the open expanses of the Irish Sea. These deeper waters are home to bigger species, including those commonly found in supermarkets and fishmongers. Cod and halibut are plentiful, and of course humans aren't the only animals who want to tuck in. There are plenty of sharks in Northern Ireland's seas, and Exploris offers you a close-up view.
They live inside the open sea tank, which is so big it could almost be an ocean on its own. It holds a quarter of a million litres of water, and is populated by everything from huge, graceful rays to tiny, hyperactive fish.
Some of the smaller, quieter creatures spend their time inside the discovery pools. These open-topped tanks are designed to bring you as close as possible to real marine life. The knowledgeable staff will introduce you to the residents, which include starfish and sea urchins. There are even some small sharks in there!
Altogether there are dozens of different tanks. When the aquarium opened in 1987 there weren't nearly as many, but its popularity resulted in a large extension. Prince Charles reopened the new and improved version in 1994. Its comprehensive displays really let you explore the underwater world - hence the name, Exploris.
As well as the exhibitions, the site also houses a Seal Sanctuary. It began in 1989, when a member of the public discovered an injured seal on a nearby beach. When the aquarium staff were contacted, they decided to nurse it back to health. News of their good deed spread, and before long they were receiving more and more calls for assistance. At the time, Exploris' facilities weren't big enough to cope, so a dedicated seal rescue centre was opened in 1999.
Viewing windows show the animals both under and above water. You'll see how they're cared for, and how they regain their health. Some of them arrive in pretty bad shape, but the staff do their best to make every single one of them as good as new. Once they've healed, they're returned to their rightful place in the wild.
Bear in mind that because seals are constantly being released, there's always a chance there might be none in the sanctuary. It's sad that some people don't get to see them up close, but this just serves as proof of the good work the Exploris staff are doing.
Visitor Information
Exploris Aquarium is open daily, 10am to 6pm (from 11am on Saturday's and from noon on Sunday's). Entry costs around £8 for adults, £5 children, £22 families. Exploris Aquarium, The Rope Walk, Castle Street, Portaferry, Co. Down, BT22 1NZ. Tel: 028 4272 8062

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