Hammerhead sharks, great barracudas and puffins are only some of the animals on view at The National Aquarium Abu Dhabi.
The attraction is the first to open in Al Qana, a new waterfront destination in the capital, and is home to 46,000 creatures and 300 species. Spanning more than 9,000 square metres, it is the largest aquarium in the Middle East and will open on Friday.
Ahead of its opening to the public, The National got an early preview of the aquatic attraction. Here’s what you can expect.
10 zones, including a rehabilitation centre for sea turtles
On entering the building, sunlight pours in from the floor-to-ceiling windows at the entrance offering an airy, open feel. As visitors move through the aquatic museum, it is more dimmed for the animals, and has special interactive features on the walls of the rooms.
For example, there's one that explains more about the animals in each room and another that shows how a Pacific island is created through sand.
Each zone is specifically themed. The 10 zones in total are UAE’s Natural Treasures, Red Sea Wreck, Atlantic Cave, The Sub, Ring of Fire, Ocean Magic, Frozen Ocean, Flooded Forest, Bu Tinah Island and Back of House, and set up to tell a narrative.
“This aquarium is really more about storytelling. The journey is designed in order to take the customer from the UAE, around the world and back to the UAE. Here we really made sure that the UAE story was told,” says Paul Hamilton, general manager and project manager of The National Aquarium.
“There’s so much rich history and culture and heritage that comes from the sea here that was really never covered in the other aquariums, so that was one of the big agendas – to get that through.”
Eazh zone contains specific creatures that tie in with the theme. For example, in Red Sea Wreck you'll find sharks and great barracudas, while The Sub has a submarine-themed room with creatures such as lobsters on view.
A highlight is UAE Natural Treasures, which pays homage to the country’s rich pearl diving history through animated paintings with video mapping technology.
It also houses rehabilitated sea turtles, some of which have been found sick or in a bad condition. They undergo a one-year rehabilitation process at the aquarium that includes being treated, pre-released in the zone, before eventually getting released back into their natural habitat in the sea.
Where to find The National Aquarium's 'super snake'
Another popular zone will likely be Flooded Forest where visitors will find the super snake, a female reticulated python aged 14 that weighs 115 kilograms. The area also has more than 8,000 rainforest creatures, including free-roaming birds that fly around and yet don't go near guests.
“The birds have been with us for quite a while and we’ve been training them for quite a while," says Hamilton. "So there’s an invisible boundary that they seem to respect but it doesn’t resist them physically. It works really well, it’s kind of surreal."
It isn’t only about animals behind the glass or birds flying around. The aquarium offers a number of interactive experiences including scuba diving, animal feedings and glass-bottom dhow tours that also go on to explain more about the animals and their natural habitats.
“Education, rescue and rehabilitation are guiding priorities for The National Aquarium," says Hamilton. "Our entire facility has been designed to provide both children and adults with world-class interactive learning opportunities, to spotlight the vital role our marine environment plays on the well-being of all."
What are the ticket prices?
Those who want to visit can opt for a general admission pass for Dh105. This allows visitors to see all 10 zones. Hamilton says this can take roughly two hours, although with young children, it may take longer.
Unlike many other animal-themed attractions, the aquarium responsibly and ethically sources its animals. It has also signed a five-year partnership with the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi, helping create a scheme to protect and rehabilitate wildlife in the capital.
“There’s a huge conservation theme behind the aquarium,” says Hamilton.
He says everything from animal acquisitions to animal welfare is regulated, which is impressive considering the large number of animals that are housed there.
“We’re also members of global organisations that are the watchdogs. The world’s good zoos and aquariums, they tend to be transparent. So, to be a member of these organisations, you have to be transparent.”
What are The National Aquarium's opening hours?
Abu Dhabi's latest attraction opens to the public from Friday, November 12. Opening hours are 10am - 8pm from Sunday to Wednesday and 10am - 10pm from Thursday to Saturday. More information is available at www.thenationalaquarium.ae