Opened in 2013, Malta’s new National Aquarium is already one of the most popular visitor attractions on the island. Designed and built in the shape of a starfish, the aquarium forms part of a project designed to rejuvenate what was a declining tourist area.
It’s been EU-funded by a PPP (private public partnership) between the Malta Tourism Board and Marine Aquatic Ltd. The new-look zone is spread over 20, 000 square metres and comprises not only the public aquarium but also a public garden, facilities for local diving schools, a shop, the Café del Mar reef club and a multi-level carpark.
Initially, funding issues slowed the progress of the project. It soon became apparent that it would be unfeasible to fund it solely from private sources. Equally, public funding alone was not considered to be a sustainable option.
Progress began with the decision to operate as a PPP, with the Malta Tourism Authority entrusted on behalf of the Government of Malta with the development, ERDF funding applications and tendering process which led to the selection of Marine Aquatic LTD as private partner. Work began in October 2011 and was completed in 2013.
Malta National Aquarium has 26 display tanks showcasing Mediterranean fish found in Maltese waters. The fish swim around replicas of historical artefacts that can be found in the seas around Malta. The main tank, which is 12 metres in diameter, houses species from the Indian Ocean including two species of shark. Visitors pass through a ‘water tunnel’ allowing them to feel surrounded by ocean life. All tanks have been expertly themed to imitate the natural underwater environment as closely as possible and together contain just under a million litres of water. There is also a touch pool, a classroom area, an interpretation space, veterinary facilities and a temporary exhibition space.
Daniel de Castro, curator of Malta National Aquarium, spoke to Blooloop about his role, his background and Malta’s new and unique aquarium.
"My bedroom was like a fish shop"
De Castro explains that he became fascinated by aquariums when he was eight years old. “My bedroom was like a fish shop, ” he says. “I kept adding more and more. I was breeding different species. It became a bit of an obsession.”
As a child, he was intrigued by the natural world in general. Role models included Felix Rodriguez de la Fuente, a well-known Spanish naturalist, and Jacques Cousteau. His father fostered his interest, taking him on frequent visits to Madrid’s Museum of Natural History.
De Castro says he knew from a very young age that he wanted to become something to do with nature and animals. “I collected insects as well as fish and was interested in birdwatching.”
He began to specialise in sciences while in Madrid, then went to study in Florida, majoring in zoology. In his spare time, he worked on a voluntary basis at aquariums. At eighteen, he began diving and qualified as a diving instructor in 1999 at the age of twenty-three. During this period he was working for the International Shark Attack File with Dr George Burgess, researching shark attacks on divers and their possible causes, and doing a study on the relation of shark jaw and tooth morphology to diet.
After completing his degree in 1999, he went back to Spain and completed three years of vet school. He was then appointed to the curatorial team that was tasked with opening a brand new zoo in Madrid. He stayed for seven and a half years.
“It’s a very nice-sized aquarium for the island and very manageable”
“I began to become more involved with zoos and public aquariums, ” explains de Castro. “In around ’04 or ’05, I became curator of the marine and freshwater sections of the zoo. That’s when I really began to get into larger species and keeping larger systems in captivity. In 2009, I moved to Bristol Aquarium.”
Again, this was a new aquarium being built from scratch. “From the beginning I was involved in all the exhibits. The design – everything. Then, in February last year, I became a senior curator for Aspro.” (Aspro Ocio is a multinational company which owns more than 65 leisure attractions in over fourteen countries.) “This meant I was in charge of the zoological team for seven aquariums in the UK. That was very interesting and very fulfilling. I was dealing with all the new exhibits for the different aquariums for the company within the UK – travelling a lot and doing reports. It was technical, allowing me to design a lot of exhibits and get them ready for zoo licence inspections. I really liked it.”
However, de Castro, who has two children, was seeing less and less of his family. So, last year, he decided to apply to be curator of the Malta National Aquarium. He knew it would mean more family time and a better quality of life.
“It’s fairly big but well-planned – a very nice-sized aquarium for the island and very manageable.”
The aquarium features fresh water, salt water, tropical marine and native marine exhibits. There is also a cold water system which houses the giant Japanese spider crabs. “We have a little bit of everything, ” comments de Castro. “And the theming is particularly striking.”
"Public aquariums are vital for conservation"
He is a passionate advocate of aquariums as an educational resource. “I think aquariums play a very important role. I wouldn’t be a curator myself if this weren’t the case. Public aquariums are vital for conservation because we tackle conservation through education. We need to enlighten the younger generation and raise awareness about the different problems facing our local wildlife so they can continue to address them in the future. We have to shout about these problems and raise awareness through fun tools for kids. Education is a part of any project I take very seriously.”
The aquarium has teamed up with ilearn Biology, an online classroom dedicated to delivering free academic coursework to students in line with the new Maltese National curriculum.
Malta National Aquarium aims to be the leading entity for the preservation of the marine life and its environment, instilling a sense of environmental responsibility in visitors. De Castro speaks with enthusiasm about the aquarium’s conservation initiatives and plans, citing their involvement with Sharklab as a positive example. Sharklab Malta is a registered NGO and is a non-profit voluntary organisation dedicated to research, education and raising awareness about Elasmobranch – sharks, rays and chimaeras – around Malta and within the Mediterranean.
"It’s an eco-sustainable project, involving native species of shark which are being fished for food. Eggs are removed from the female sharks after they have been caught. “We incubate them here in the aquarium so the sharks develop in the eggs. Once they are born, we keep them for between four to six months and then we do a shark release.”
His ambition is to translate this project to species that are threatened, namely rays and skates. He explains: “At the moment, the project has proved to be very successful, and this is why we now want to target species that are more endangered and therefore of more value from a conservation perspective.”
The shark release project is another feature that makes the Malta National Aquarium “one-of-a-kind”. “Furthermore, ” de Castro adds, “the majority of the exhibits are all relevant to Malta. Local people are familiar with and can identify each one of them.”
The aquarium’s first year has been very successful
There were three clear objectives behind the $15.6 million project: to promote natural features of the coastal environment, to engage the public with the need to care for and protect the environment, and to breathe new life into the cultural heritage features on the site. So far, all three objectives are being met. De Castro points out that, in his experience of working in the sector, visitor numbers tend to fall in the second year as the novelty value wears off. “But from the third year onwards, numbers ought to rise steadily.
“Now it’s a more mature aquarium. The water’s clarity and quality is much better and things are moving on. The fish are growing and it’s interesting for people to watch it grow and evolve.”