Speculation mounts over future of prime waterfront site as aquarium closes its doors

It has operated under a host of different names, and welcomed hundreds of thousands of families since it opened. But after 54 years, the Manly Sea Life Sanctuary is closing its doors.

News of the closure of the aquarium on January 28 has sparked speculation about what will replace the Manly aquarium, as well as questions around the future of the animals that have called it home.

The aquarium was the first of its kind in Sydney and only the seventh in the world when it opened in 1963.

It was then named Marineland, and it boasted a 55ft circular tank holding four million litres of water surrounded by newly air-conditioned viewing galleries.

In the late 80s, $12 million was injected into the aquarium, refurbishing the interior and revealing the longest underwater tunnel in the world at the time.

Over the years, it has been known as Marineland, Oceanworld, Underwater World or Manly Oceanarium, before its current name was adopted in mid-2012 under the new owners Merlin Entertainments Group.

In March last year the company announced that the building was no longer feasible to maintain as an aquarium due to the projected maintenance required to keep the site up and running.

The site, owned by the Roads and Maritime Service, is a prime piece of real estate sitting right off the shore of Manly cove.

An RMS spokesperson said the service has “been approached by several parties with an interest in taking on the site once the aquarium departs the site this year,” and that it would be looking for expressions of interest for the lease of the site “in accordance with the current zoning.”

“RMS will go to market to determine the possible future use of the site, which is zoned W2, in the first half of this year.”

Under this current zoning the site is solely limited to boats sheds, kiosks, function centres, water recreation structures and marinas.

This would rule out the possibility of residential property replacing the aquarium at the current time.

Northern Beaches Council Acting CEO David Kerr told the Herald there are “no plans to change the zoning of this property.”

“If an application was lodged to change the zoning, Council is required by legislation to consider the application. Any application to change the zoning would be a matter for the elected Council to consider and determine.”

Speaking with Manly ward members of the Northern Beaches Council, Pat Daley and Sarah Grattan, both expressed their opposition to any proposed changes of the zoning.

“It is imperative that we keep this location for the benefit of the community,” Cr Daley said.

While Cr Grattan believes there “certainly would be no support for a residential site ??? it just would not be suitable.”

“It’s a local, public asset that should not be taken over by private residential groups,” she said.

Manly MP James Griffin also said it should remain in public hands.

“Ideally it would host a tenant in line with my community’s expectations and who would be sympathetic to the sensitivities of our local, coastal environment,” he said.

“I will listen closely to the feedback from my community and let RMS do the necessary work to hopefully find a new operator for the site after January 2018.”

As the closing date nears, aquarium staff are preparing to relocate the animals.

Life sciences manager Rob Townsend said the breed, rescue and protect program, which is being moved to the Darling Harbour Sea Life Aquarium, has helped change the community’s outlook towards animals like sharks and taking care of the environment.

This work has ranged from a primary focus on in-house breeding to minimise the impact of animal populations in the wild, rescuing injured animals and nurturing them back to health and protecting the environment by regular beach and dive cleans.

Mr Townsend has been analysing each animal to find the best suited location for it to be moved to, with a number of aquariums across and some overseas showing interest.

With the comfort of knowing all the animals will be safely taken care of, Mr Townsend admitted he will deeply miss the daily contact with animals.

“I’ve been lucky enough to be able to jump in the tank with big sharks, rays and turtles on a nearly daily basis,” he said.

“That’s going to be really hard to not have that anymore.”

Chris Lloyd-Mostyn first visited the Manly aquarium when he was 18 years old. More than three decades later, with four children and his wife Jane, Chris has returned to from London visiting for the last time.

“I came here exactly 31 years ago and have fond memories of diving with the sharks and turtles. I’m hoping my eldest son will go diving with me, like what I did when I was 18,” Chris said.

“I’m sad and surprised that it’s closing because it’s such a nice attraction.”

His wife Jane relished in the opportunity to visit the aquarium for the first time, “for 20 years my husband has not stopped talking about this place and how he wanted to come back here, so I’m thankful we got here just in time” she said.