No wonder, then, that Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo can claim several superlatives of its own, not least for its record-breaking viewing window fronting one of the world’s largest shopping malls.
Blooloop spoke to Paul Hamilton, General Manager and Curator of Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo about underwater cage adventure, Shark Encounter, and the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week exhibit; plus the pros and cons of marine conservation in Dubai Mall.
The world’s first underwater viewing tunnel
Hamilton, a marine biologist and keen surfer, grew up in New Zealand.
While studying for his degree, he did a project at his local aquarium in Auckland, Kelly Tarlton’s Sea Life Centre. There, he got chatting to the manager.
“We connected on a number of ways as far as my enthusiasm for aquariums goes. I was asked to return the following year. At the end of that second week they said, ‘when you graduate, we’ll offer you a position.’ I graduated, they offered me the position, and I worked there for three years.”
Over those three years, Hamilton worked his way up from being the person who cleaned up the food preparation area to aquarist. Then senior aquarist.
“At the end of three years I got myself to assistant curator.”
Kelly Tarlton’s Sea Life Centre was the first aquarium in the world to install an underwater viewing tunnel. Paul’s life changed after a chance encounter with the man who invented the process of bending the acrylic to make these now common tunnels possible.
“No-one had ever made a tunnel through the water before. [He and his partner] got some acrylic from Germany, and when everyone told them that you can’t bend the stuff, they made an oven in their back yard and they bent it, and decided to make the world’s first aquarium with a tunnel through it.
“The man himself happened to be walking through as a customer, I bumped into him and we got talking. He mentioned to me that ever since he built this aquarium in Auckland, he’d been building them all around the world. Then, he asked me whether I was ready for a challenge. I said ‘Yes” because I was young and dumb”.
In at the deep end
“He took me out of small-time NZ, and the next thing I knew, I was in North China, the only Western guy around, managing a $150 million USD aquarium.
“It was devastating and the best thing that had ever happened to me at the same time.”
Hamilton was given a translator and left to get on with it. And despite, by his own admission, making a significant number of mistakes, he got the job done:
“The aquarium opened, and millions and millions of people started flying through the doors, and, sure enough, they booked me for the next job. It was a heavy start, but it did kick off absolutely everything.”
Jobs followed in Kazakhstan, Russia, Thailand, and Malaysia, before Hamilton came to Dubai and worked for the company that designed Dubai Aquarium. At just 29 years old, he headed up the whole Dubai Aquarium build and operation.
“There were some challenges: it’s a very large-scale aquarium: at the time it was ranked in the top three for size in the world. I had an added complication in that it was going to be inside the world’s largest shopping mall.”
More superlatives were to follow. It was also going to be one of the world’s largest suspended aquariums (it’s constructed on stilts) with the world’s largest viewing window.
“It was hugely complicated in some respects, but I loved the concept of what we were doing, and that was that the tank was a free-view to everyone who comes to the mall. To invest so heavily and then let everyone have it as part of the experience in a mall is pretty cool.”
Shark AI conservation project
The gigantic tank contains 30, 000 creatures and 300 species, the most prominent of which are the sharks and rays.
“We have the biggest group of sand tiger sharks, an endangered species, in the world. We’re running a conservation project called Shark AI, cooperating with scientists out of Australia. Essentially, it involves collecting sperm from male sharks, freezing it in liquid nitrogen and keeping it for 20, 30, 50 years, then defrosting it and inseminating a female and getting a pup, so it’s a genetic safety net where, if the species is diminishing, we can store their reproductive material and save them for the future and use them to keep the species going.”
The idea is to develop a strategy along the lines of what has previously been done for pandas.
“The reason why panda are no longer an endangered species is quite simply because this same technology was there to catch them. Sharks are going down that same road, so that’s our shark project.”
As Hamilton says, the main exhibit is free to view by the millions who visit Dubai Mall. The Underwater Zoo, however, constructed at the same time, makes a profit and offsets the expense of the giant tank in the mall. Relatively modest in size, it is designed to maximise the potential of its content.
”We have all the exhibits you’d normally see in a huge public aquarium. But we have had to be very efficient with how we laid everything out, so we put exhibits in all kinds of places: there are floor-level displays, then our mezzanine.”
The undisputed star of the Underwater Zoo is King Croc.
“Sharks aside, he’s my favourite, ” admits Hamilton.
“I brought him over in 2014, and he was one of the largest crocodiles in the world. I had the privilege of flying around with him and bringing him in. He’s the second supersize crocodile that I’ve worked with.”
The first was a crocodile that had to be transported across the whole continent of Australia to an exhibit in Melbourne. Hamilton pulled the seats out of a bus to transport the enormous animal.
“We did it in winter. Crocodiles can’t take the cold, so the heating in the bus had to be on full, so we were sweating while it was winter outside. The worst part was he decided to defecate in the bus, and we were unable to open the window. It was a rough few days! For King Croc, we chartered a 747. I prefer a croc plane to a croc bus.”
Back to Dubai Aquarium
Hamilton moved on after Dubai Aquarium was completed.
“We built Dubai Aquarium as an aquarium building company, and then that company moved me to Australia, and asked me to redevelop Melbourne Aquarium.
“Dubai contacted me and asked me to come back after I had been gone 3 years. They approached and hired me directly. Now, I’m an employee of Emaar, the owners of Dubai Aquarium, and it is since then that I’ve done projects like King Croc and Shark Week.”
The collaboration with the Discovery Channel, announced at the start of the year, is still in its early stages, says Hamilton:
“We’re only getting started. We did the official Shark Week exhibit, numerous back-of-house experiences, and many other developments.”
“I’ve got the whole business plan set up from now to 2020.
“Every opening that we’re doing is a little more intense, a little more crazy.”
Discovery Channel’s Shark Week exhibit
“Shark Week, for example, is Discovery Channel’s biggest franchise. They had 49 million viewers in a seven day period this year, so it’s entertainment driven. The aquarium has the world’s first Shark Week exhibit, but the purpose of the exhibit is to educate.
“We provide the attributes of Shark Week, in a way where people are learning about the animals. There is also a digital shark cage. Visitors get to feel what it’s like to be a diver as they are in a cage surrounded by sharks. They can interact with the sharks – they’re all digital, but when you push a certain button you get information about how they see, hear, feel. It helps to understand the animal a little bit.”
The exhibit itself is a hybrid of technology and live displays of creatures like devil rays and hammerheads. Behind them, on LED screens, visitors see the ‘Shark Week heroes’. These are the Great Whites and Tiger Sharks that can’t be confined in aquariums. They are introduced digitally to the water, so people view them as if they’re in the same tank.
Hamilton’s team has produced a documentary which showcases these species. There are no whale sharks at Dubai Aquarium, and conservation initiatives could understandably focus on species that are showcased:
“…but the documentary we produced, one third of that documentary is all about whale shark conservation. We try to capture all elements, not just the ones that we’re showing.”
The exhibit project managers, zoOceanarium Group, applauded Paul’s vision for such an innovative exhibit. “We were proud to play a significant role in this iconic and innovative exhibit. Working with Paul and his team is always a pleasure as he always pushes the envelope on exhibit design.” says Managing Partner Chris Davis.
The aquarium’s newest immersive offering, Shark Encounter, is exactly that – the chance to get into an underwater cage for real and watch as the aquarium staff feed the sharks.
Safely enclosed in the diving cage, Dubai Aquarium Shark Feed Divers lure the sharks towards the enclosure with buckets of fish, bringing visitors just centimetres away from the feeding frenzy in an interactive and educational experience.
“This is the first time that non-experienced divers have been able to enter the shark feeding arena, ” says Hamilton.
Following the 30-minute underwater experience, visitors are taken on a tour of the back-of-house facilities. The includes the feeding of shark babies and learning about the aquarium’s shark breeding programme.
According to Hamilton, Shark Encounter and the Shark Week exhibition are intended to dispel the often negative mythology surrounding these creatures while raising awareness of their plight as numbers in the wild continue to decline.
Innovative projects that competitors will struggle to follow
As far as future projects go, Hamilton doesn’t give much away but says that one scheduled to open next year will be “… a lot bigger than anything we’ve done for a long time.”
“They are very innovative projects, and incredibly difficult: we’re going for high technicality on all these jobs, and trying to make sure making sure we’re cutting-edge by Dubai Expo in 2020. These projects are going to be very hard to follow for any competitor.”
Technology aside, the primary drivers are conservation and education.
“We have an enormous number of school groups, so it’s one of our big focuses. We’ve developed different packages for different grades; we have touch screens throughout the facility that have school group buttons, so as the groups reach each screen they can drill down into their own quizzes, into their own information, and the topics are all conservation topics, concerned not only with the behaviour and attributes of different animals, but with how we can manage our oceans into the future.
“We deem that to be an extremely strong conservation project because those messages for the future are important, and these kids are every nationality you could dream of: this is Dubai, it’s an absolute melting pot, so those messages do reach a high variety of families.
Behave like an Indoor Attraction
“It’s an expectation of the world now that if you’re going to run a zoo or an aquarium you’re going to have to set aside budgets. You are also going to have to understand conservation, you’re going to have to make it one of your priorities – you have to. The public demand it now, which helps in my scenario where I’m both the environmentalist and the businessman.”
He concedes that there are limitations to the record-breaking aquarium’s location.
“We don’t have marine mammals here, simply because we’re quite aware of what species we can cater to. We don’t want to try to take a more intelligent creature without being able to offer it the right environment, so we’ve stopped ourselves from going in those directions simply because of where we are.
“Behaving like a park is not for us. We have to behave like an indoor attraction.”
Nevertheless, he adds:
“At the same time, I think probably the key thing, the best thing that we do is we have that 32 metre long window facing 80 million people. And, 80 million people walk into that area not expecting that tank. When they see it… Sometimes I like staying down on the ground floor and hearing their reactions. You’re expecting just to see retail, and then you see this thing. Then you know it’s full of sharks. And then you’re expecting a shark fight, and you don’t get a shark fight.
“What you get is a balanced ecosystem where shark and prey are all living happily together.”
(All images kind courtesy Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo.)