Facelift for Burj Al Arab aquarium is no small feat

The Burj Al Arab aquarium is being refurbished for the first time in 13 years, and it is not an easy task.

Clown fish swim in a tank at the Burj Al Arab Aquarium. The Burj Al Arab rehabilitates turtles and marine life found in the UAE.
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DUBAI // The colourful fish at the luxurious Burj Al Arab have been moved into plush new accommodation of their own.

The lobby tanks, on either side of the lifts that whisk guests up into the hotel from the front entrance, had been there since the hotel opened in 1999.

But the rocks and artificial coral had become discoloured, so the decision was made to rip everything out and start again.
But this was by no means a straightforward task.

First the fish had to be caught and removed to tanks in the basement. This was achieved by throwing food into the water in one particular area, then netting the fish as they fed.

A few smart angelfish quickly figured out what was happening and stayed well away from that area, leaving aquarium staff no option but to drain the tanks until only 25 centimetres of water remained, so they could pick them up one by one.

“They were very clever,” said Warren Baverstock, the aquarium operations manager.

“As soon as a few of their tank buddies disappeared they just knew not to go to feed in that area, and they kept a low profile until we drained the tank down.

“We had to get in with buckets and small nets.”

Once the elusive angelfish had been rounded up, and the remainder of the 500,000 litres of water the tanks hold had been removed, work could begin in earnest.

“We had to support the acrylic windows and cover them to protect them,” said Mr Baverstock. “Then we had to remove all the existing rubber coral.

“From there we introduced scaffolding and cut away rockwork from certain areas of the old exhibit that we wanted to remove. We spent three weeks chopping rockwork.”

The previous coral reef theme has been completely re-imagined, while new energy-saving lighting gives guests a better view of the fish.
The refurbishment took three months, and the fish were gradually reintroduced last month.

Parts of the tanks that can be seen from the two private dining rooms that adjoin Al Mahara fish restaurant have been altered.
One section continues the coral reef theme while the other has been rebuilt to resemble a cave with stalactites hanging from the ceiling.

“We’ve introduced more opportunities for fish to hide,” said Mr Baverstock.

"Previously it was very much a sheer face with coral stuck on it, whereas now there are lots of cul-de-sacs, gaps and holes.
"We've introduced moray eels, and the fact we've got these areas where fish can go inside and hide creates an interesting aspect for guests.

“We even have a lobster in one of the tanks, which we introduced on Monday.”

The lucky lobster will star only in the tank, and not on Al Mahara’s menu.

Other newly introduced species include yellow tangs, cowfish, butterfly fish and batfish.

The three tanks contain a total of 3,000 fish from 40 species, most of which come from the Indian Ocean.

The final stage of the refurbishment is due to take place in 2014, when Al Mahara’s tank will get a completely new look.

"We're going to have a sunken dhow and a pearl diving theme," Mr Baverstock said. "It will be very historical and factual."
The Burj Al Arab was coy when asked about the cost of the refurbishment. A spokesman would only say it was "very expensive", which is to be expected at one of the world's most exclusive hotels.

“We’ve invested a lot in the guest experience,” Mr Baverstock said. “You only get one go at such a thing, and for me that was very stressful because it had to work.

“You can’t just drain a tank down and catch all the fish again. It’s not realistic.”