Andy Bonner: How lockdown easing will have an effect on marine life at Blue Planet Aquarium in Ellesmere Port

"I love him so much," aquarist Sam Kentwell tells me.

"Any time anyone asks me what my favourite animal is in the aquarium, without missing a single beat; it's the octopus."

Sam's career at Blue Planet Aquarium has been rather unusual. Defined by lockdown, she and her colleagues have been able to spend some quality time with the marine life.

"It's just fun. You get to zone out for 20 minutes and hang out with this octopus. It's really lovely."

Sam and the other members of staff here are busy preparing the Cheshire Oaks attraction to fully open to visitors again.

Ellesmere Port went into local lockdown in November and straight into the national lockdown in the new year. So this moment has been a long time coming.

I ask Sam's colleague Abi Green-Morris if the octopus will notice the sudden influx of people watching him.

"He's very aware of his surroundings," she says. "He knows if people are looking at him through the glass. He'll come over and be quite curious, especially with children. He wants to meet them and weigh them up a little."

Blue Planet Aquarium is ready to welcome visitors back Credit: ITV Granada

When I was last here nearly 12 months ago, the situation was precarious.

Blue Planet is the largest aquarium in the country. Yet the first lockdown was causing a lot of uncertainty for the business.

Bosses did not know when they would be able to open and they were losing money hand over fist. After all, they still had to care for thousands of marine creatures from around the world.

General Manager Odin Morris now has more of a spring in his step.

"The difference this time has been that we've been able to plan," he says. "There's been more security in place. We knew what Covid was. We also knew what visitors' reactions would be."

A touch of vacuuming before the visitors arrive Credit: ITV Granada

I watch in surprise as three divers splash into the water in front of me, making their way between the tropical fish, stingray and sharks.

They begin using a huge vacuum hose and brushes to clean up the floor of the tank. Even the watery depths need to be prepared for the big reopening, it seems.

The conveyor belt which usually transports visitors through the 70m-long underwater tunnel has been turned off while Odin and I chat and there is an issue with switching it back on. Something else to arrange before welcoming back the public.

Regulars will notice a new outdoor conservation space here and increased ventilation inside the building. Other measures like social distancing and cleansing are now unremarkable to staff and visitors alike.

Odin says there is already a lot of demand for tickets and is hopeful the business will survive the pandemic.

"We know visitors will come back. They've been five months in lockdown. They want to go out. They want to see sharks. They want to create memories.

"People can't wait to see something real and not just something in front of a TV screen."

Odin tells me the marine life will initially be excited to see visitors - because they will expect to be fed. That should calm down after a few weeks, Odin hopes.

Visitors are champing at the bit to see the sharks again Credit: ITV Granada

Sam and Abi have also been using the downtime to deep clean some of the tanks - and have been finding new puzzles to occupy the octopus.

It's called human enrichment and the intelligent creature likes nothing more than working out how to open a jam jar or, as I discovered, use his sticky suckers to attach his arm onto an unsuspecting human.

"He wants to feel anything new," Abi assures me. "We know he's happy because of his bright red colour and he keeps coming back for more play."

I am astonished to learn that the octopus knows Abi is ticklish and will test her by purposefully sticking to her arms too.

A sticky situation? Credit: ITV Granada

Abi and Sam are understandably enthusiastic about their work and are both looking forward to visitors flooding the place once more.

"Even though it has its perks of being closed, it's really nice to be open and tell people," Abi says.

"My biggest joy is telling everybody about marine life and educating them. The more people know about it, the more I enjoy my job."