Port Stephens is set to experience a massive boost to its nature-based tourism market with plans announced this week for a million dollar-plus transformation of the Irukandji Shark and Ray centre from Bobs Farm to the former Anna Bay Oval site.
Irukandji owners Ryan Pereira (a marine biologist) and Lia Pereira (zookeeper) have agreed to purchase the 3.5-hectare block of land from Port Stephens Council as part of a 10-year strategy to build a world-class aquarium and marine hospital to add to its interactive shark and ray facility.
The family business, which has operated in Marsh Road since 2014, will present an exciting new phase for the Pereira's as they embark on a venture that will see 10 times the current space available to grow and develop its educational experiences with improved facilities.
The move to Anna Bay is also expected to complement another new conservation-based project, the $3 million koala sanctuary and hospital which has been slated for the Treescapes site.
The council last Tuesday night approved the sale of land located at the intersection of Nelson Bay Road, Port Stephens Drive and Jessie Road, which has remained vacant since the oval's closure in the early 2000s.
The purchase price remains confidential and final contracts are expected to exchange over the next four to six weeks.
Deputy mayor and central ward councillor Sarah Smith said it was pleasing to have a local business invest in the economy and look to redevelop the site located at the gateway to Port Stephens.
"This provides both economic benefits and jobs," she said.
For the Pereira's, expansion has been on the cards since first opening their doors in November 2014.
"Phase one in the new facility is set to include a large outdoor lagoon with six pools meandering into one another, a tropical indoor aquarium, cafe and playground and there are other exciting developments over the next decade," the couple said.
"This includes the Sea Shelter marine life hospital, encompassing a much-needed rehabilitation centre, which would allow injured animals to be treated here instead of being sent to Sydney's Taronga Zoo, plus a jellyfish exhibit, an extreme shark experience and an array of endangered freshwater species including sea otters, penguins and fish.
"We believe everything that we do can directly benefit the ocean and for us education is best done through participation and hands-on experiences.
"We will continue to be dedicated to spreading awareness and making a difference for aquatic life through display, interaction, communication, education, research and action."
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The Pereira family is keen to commence construction on the marine animal enclosures within months of having contracts signed before adding the two million litres of water and undertaking the delicate job of transferring the marine life from Bobs Farm to Anna Bay.
"Some of the changes we can expect to see include new species of shark, sandy beaches for all visitors to paddle in with the animals, snorkeling for the family through the lagoon and amenities such as hot showers," the couple said.
"It is our hope that we can open our doors to the new, state-of-the-art centre before winter 2020."
An extra 20 jobs are expected to be created when fully operational.
The land is zoned RE1 (Public Recreation) allowing for public open space or recreational purposes.
One real estate agent said it would be difficult to estimate its market value due to its zoning.
According to Destination Port Stephens, in the year ending September 2017 nature-based visitors accounted for 84 per cent of international visitors to NSW and 28 per cent of domestic visitors, with China, US and UK making up key source markets.
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