Hull splashes out on tanks, coral and sharks - but don't call it an aquarium

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The Independent Online

An elaborate "submarium" featuring 35ft fish tanks populated by baby hammerhead sharks will be unveiled in Hull today, in the hope that the lottery-funded attraction will do for the city what the Guggenheim has done for Bilbao.

An elaborate "submarium" featuring 35ft fish tanks populated by baby hammerhead sharks will be unveiled in Hull today, in the hope that the lottery-funded attraction will do for the city what the Guggenheim has done for Bilbao.

Designed by Sir Terry Farrell at a cost of £46m, and described as a submarium to distinguish it from the more humble two-a-penny aquarium, The Deep is a pet project of John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister, local MP and former Hull merchant navy man.

It is one a series of National Lottery-funded projects which includes the £30m Imperial War Museum North in Manchester and the £22m Baltic Arts Centre in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear.

Built on a promontory at the confluence of the rivers Hull and Humber, the building's architecture clearly had its maritime subject at heart. It is a geological metaphor, rising out of the ground like a crystalline rock formation. Some have observed that, viewed from Hull's pierhead, it also looks rather like a leaping fish, complete with scales. If this is more than a happy accident then The Deep may prosper, unlike certain other millennium projects. Its target will be to emulate the success of another lottery-funded venture, the Eden Project biodomes in Cornwall.

The original plan for The Deep – conceived by a local councillor, David Gemmell, – was to create a Natural History Museum for the North. Only later was it refined to focus on the oceans, and The Deep is now awash with fish, plucked from the Indian Ocean and Red Sea to pirouette around huge acrylic tanks laden with commendably realistic coral. Visitors will journey among them in a transparent lift when the venue opens to the public on Saturday, in time for the Easter holidays.

A £2m fossil wall filled with skeletons and carcasses of ocean creatures leads down to the tanks. Other features include an "ice walk" among polar galleries and an enclosed observation deck with views across the Humber.

The Deep has had its logistical problems. A footbridge connecting it with Hull's old town was due to open about now, but has been delayed by the local harbourmaster's ruling that it and its accompanying concrete dolphins are a hazard to river craft. The dolphins are being shifted three metres and the bridge altered at a reported cost of £750,000.

But The Deep's chief executive, Colin Brown, is comfortable with his project's content, and insists that Cornwall's Eden Project and The Deep are both modern interpretations of proven Victorian successes – the botanical greenhouse and the aquarium.

He is learning from the experience of others, financing The Deep conservatively in such a way that it starts with no debt and needs 190,000 visitors a year to break even – a more pessimistic projection than that of the consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers, which predicts at least 250,000. Entrance charges have been set at a relatively modest £6 for adults and £4 for children.

Cheap all-in excursions from London will be offered and it is hoped that millions of people who alight from North Sea ferries en route from the Continent to Ireland may be tempted in.

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