Working Wonders: National Aquarium boss set on journey of discovery by a shark

Paul Hamilton's fascination with marine life, that began at the age of five, brought him to Abu Dhabi

Feeding hammerhead sharks by hand at Abu Dhabi's National Aquarium

Feeding hammerhead sharks by hand at Abu Dhabi's National Aquarium
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Our Working Wonders of the UAE series takes you to some of the country's most recognisable destinations to uncover the daily duties of the talented employees working there

The moment Paul Hamilton first walked through the viewing tunnel of a New Zealand aquarium he realised what he wanted to do with his life.

It was an unforgettable encounter looking into the mouth of a shark as a young child that would set him on course for a career in which he would cross continents to pursue his passion.

Four decades on, the 45-year-old general manager of Abu Dhabi’s National Aquarium oversees 46,000 animals, with more than 330 species on display.

But back when he was second in command at Auckland Aquarium, two years after the marine biology graduate had landed a job there, Mr Hamilton met the inventor of 'tunnel technology'.

The inventor revealed he had more projects than he could handle and asked whether the 20-something could take one on.

How did it all start?

I’d never built an aquarium, obviously, but I agreed, and around 60 days later was on a plane to northern China.

I was dropped in the deep end to oversee construction of a US$200 million aquarium.

I’m now talking to this Chinese billionaire about this aquarium I'm supposed to build.

I was in China a couple of years, I finished the project, it opened, and it’s very successful.

I really learnt the hard way. That was essentially the launch of my career.

China changed my personality, I never did a project as hard again, and after that, I felt like I could do it all.

Where did you go from there?

More aquariums followed, including in Kazakhstan, Thailand, Malaysia, Australia, Turkey, and Russia.

I designed the journeys, would manage construction, introduce the livestock, open the business and then hand it over … those projects were always square on my shoulders.

At 29 I got a call when Dubai Mall was going to include their record-breaking aquarium in its construction.

I got offered Atlantis [The Palm, Dubai] as well, so had to make a decision, but I had a feeling Dubai Mall was going to be more famous.

I loved that, while shopping, people might unintentionally run into this moment of nature.

It paved the way for by far my favourite aquarium I’ve worked on.

What did you find in Abu Dhabi?

I arrived in 2018 to foundations and building designs.

What really sealed it was creative freedom.

The beauty of the National Aquarium was that money could be spent in different ways.

You can spend it all on the largest window in the world, or the most water, or you can spend your money on intricate storytelling.

A lot more funding effort and attention was paid to details room by room, rather than investing everything in one massive show-off element.

We integrated a lot of technology with habitat, with livestock – things that had never been done before.

We have creatures I did not understand my whole career, and we nailed it here. Like the hammerhead … notoriously difficult to work with in an aquarium setting. How you introduce these sharks – in our case 10 – to this environment is so critical.

Plus while we were into the livestock side of putting this aquarium together, the pandemic was in full swing.

Planes I needed to fly the animals were being grounded, roads were closed, people were working from home when I needed them at the airport – and I’m flying sharks from the US.

Yeah, it was a tricky time to build an aquarium.

What is an interesting part of your job?

We also run an arm of Wildlife Rescue, which is a joint project with Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi, for animal emergencies.

Knowing the ownership was willing to invest into conservation meant we could build a programme that would do bona fide good work in the environment.

Now we are seeing zoos and aquariums play critical roles in managing the last individuals of a species, trying to breed them back into populations.

This is definitely my best work … it let me hit a lot of personal objectives.

It’s getting more difficult for the average human to access the environment, and it may even be detrimental to try and see things for themselves. But it’s important, for the few protected areas we have, that we expose people to the creatures of those areas and create the connection.

My appreciation for marine life is as high as ever and the job’s an addiction. I can’t not have it in my life.

Updated: November 10, 2023, 12:00 PM