A Picton aquarium – one of three left in the country – is set to close tonight after more than 20 years and 1 million visitors through its doors.
Seven Sharp took one last tour of EcoWorld after the owner of the land, Port Marlborough, decided not to renew the lease, which expires at midnight.
The aquarium – which also has a movie theatre – is home to a range of animals, including a 160-year-old Cook Strait tuatara, a grey side-gilled sea slug, several rabbits and a crayfish that had been destined for the dinner table.
EcoWorld was a lifelong dream for former stockbroker John Reuhman.
Then one day, he was hand-delivered an envelope by landowner Port Marlborough.
“All along we've had the assumption - we've always been led to believe that yes, the lease was going to be renewed,” he said.
EcoWorld manager Janelle White called the news “very, very sudden”.
“The bare minimum, three months, to say, 'Clear out your building, dispose of your animals - oh, and for $75,000, we'll take your building off you,” Reuhman said.
“We're not a boat shed, we're not a retail stall - we've got live animals here that rely on us to keep them safe and meet their needs,” White added.
In a statement, Port Marlborough said it had discussed extending the lease with EcoWorld, but the aquarium did not accept the terms.
Reuhman says the animals, which can’t be released and are unlikely to survive the journey to another aquarium, will likely be euthanised.
“They can't fend for themselves. They can't feed themselves. They can't defend themselves," he said.
“It's like opening up the doors of a rest home and opening the door, they step outside and the first thing, a bus hits them because someone's got a bit of dementia.
"They didn't know a bus existed - that's what will happen there. They'll be dead in a day."
White says the "whole 'slaughter the animals' thing's got a little bit out of hand".
The Department of Conservation is quietly on the case, but EcoWorld has just hours left to get off the hook.