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Visitors at The National Aquarium in Abu Dhabi. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Abu Dhabi: Your visit to it may not be your first visit to an aquarium. But The National Aquarium in Abu Dhabi and its penchant for species conservation and sustainability certainly set it apart.

The facility, which opened to visitors just last week, is home to 46,000 creatures from 330 species, including creatures that are commonly not seen in the Middle East: Puffins, bull sharks and capybaras, for instance. And underpinning the entire experience is a focus on the UAE’s connection to its wildlife and plant treasures.

If you’re planning a visit, here are some things you ought to know about Abu Dhabi’s latest attraction.

What sets it apart

The goal was to build an aquarium that represents the UAE’s heritage, and reflects the strong bond between its people and its wildlife, Paul Hamilton, general manager and project manager at The National Aquarium.

“The people of the UAE and their livelihoods have always been so closely linked to the flora and fauna of the land, with to the sea. We wanted to make sure that this attachment was mirrored at the aquarium,” Hamilton said.

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An aquarium worker feeds the friendly capybaras, a giant rodent. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Species conservation

Sea turtles: "We prioritise species conservation and rehabilitation. Our partnership with [the emirate’s environment sector regulator,] the Environment Agency — Abu Dhabi (EAD), has seen us rescue more than 250 stranded sea turtles, rehabilitate them and release them into the waters, and we expect to continue in this vein,” Hamilton said.

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Paul Hamilton, the general manager and project manager at The National Aquarium, Abu Dhabi. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

In fact, nearly all the sea turtles at the aquarium are rescues. Species seen in the UAE waters include the green turtle, the loggerhead and the Hawksbill turtle. In winter, water temperatures drop drastically and this causes the animals, which are cold-blooded and therefore cannot regulate their body temperature, to become weak and inactive. This is known as cold-stunning and eventually affects the animal’s circulation and organs. They are often unable to float and are washed ashore and go on to develop bacterial and fungal infections that become life-threatening.

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Visitors take a closer look at a clownfish in the tank. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

“UAE waters are very unique and see a drastic drop in temperatures between seasons — from about 38 degrees Celsius in the summer to 18 degrees Celsius in the winter. This shocks the reptiles and unless we rescue them, they cannot survive,” Hamilton explained.

Sharks: Staff at the aquarium are also studying shark breeding patterns to help conserve the misunderstood creature.

“Whenever a species becomes endangered, we need to understand breeding in order to bring it back from the edge. This was done, for instance, with pandas. Given that very few shark species are thriving today — because of the fin trade and bycatch effect — it is imperative for us to study their breeding patterns closely so that we can intervene if required,” Hamilton explained.

The National Aquarium itself houses 25 species of sharks and rays, including three that are threatened: The giant tarfish, that already has an ongoing project to breed some of them.

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A blue shark circles in its tank at the aqaurium. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Countering the human effect

Hamilton said that humans have a key role to play in protecting animals around us. “Whenever a species becomes threatened or endangered, it is usually because of human activity. So humanity must also intervene to rehabilitate animals and bring them back from decline or extinction,” he stressed.

The National Aquarium, in keeping with its spirit of conservation, only houses animals that would be at home in tanks of the size at the facility. “This went with our ethos, as we did not want to restrict creatures that are used to swimming vast distances, and would therefore not ‘feel at home’ in the environments we are able to provide,” Hamilton said.

A grand entry

The aquarium area is separated into ten distinct zones, each different in its ambience and content. Visitors enter through a pearl, signifying the UAE’s pearling heritage. A wooden door has ‘National Aquarium’ inscribed in Arabic, with the font mimicking the handwriting of the UAE’s founding father, late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

The Zones:

1. UAE’s Natural Treasures: Built to look like an Arabian lagoon, this zone houses sea turtles rehabilitated by the aquarium. A massive 3D graphic on the walls shows the turtles’ movements on UAE coastlines, whereas an unmissable display houses models of traditional pearl divers complete with the nosepin, basic diving wear and woven basket they would use to collect oysters off the sea bed.

Watch out for Amal (Arabic for ‘hope’), a rehabilitated sea turtle with two missing flippers, who calmly plies the waters. And make sure to get a peek at the colourful lionfish and firefish in their cylindrical tank.

Number of species: 21, including oysters

2. Red Sea Wreck: This zone is built like a ship wrecked at the bottom of the Red Sea. The giant groupers, some of which can grow to weigh 455kg, are fascinating, as are massive humphead wrasse. The smaller creatures are just as interesting, including the sea horses and the unusually shaped warty frogfish.

Number of species: 43

3. Atlantic Cave: True to its name, the structure of this zone makes it look like an underwater cave. There, a series of tanks house some captivating creatures, including a horseshoe crab and pufferfish.

You also probably won’t notice the sole at first glance. It is usually buried in the gravel with just eyes protruding!

Number of species: 33

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The world's largest snake, in captivity, can be seen at The National Aquarium in Abu Dhabi. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

4. The Sub: If you were in an underwater submarine, you might see some of the fish and marine creatures that can be seen in this zone. There is a giant moray eel that can extend up to three metres long, a rock lobster, and snails that stick to the glass of the display case.

Number of species: 11

5. Ring of Fire: Entering this zone, a turtle sculpture may not immediately grab your attention, surrounded as you will be by marine creatures from the Great Barrier Reef. But guides will point out that it has been created from discarded trash in the sea, from cutlery to bottle caps to plastic. In the background, a massive poster explains that 80 per cent of marine debris comes from the land, thus urging visitors to protect their oceans through their behaviour.

A very interesting installation here allows visitors to see ‘firsthand’ how islands are formed. They can sift fine sand into volcano-like formations. A projection then mimics a volcanic eruption, showing water flooding in to fill channels created by the eruption, and eventually resulting in an island.

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Children form a mock volcano as part of an interactive projection. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Don’t miss the unique tanks that allow you to stick your head out among colourful fish!

Number of species: 21

6. Ocean Magic: Every creature in this zone has a feature that appears magical!

The very first case shows four stages of growth of a bamboo shark’s egg, with two newly hatched fish swimming around inside. The pineapplefish nearby has fins that look like a pineapple, the flashlight fish emits a bright light in its darkened case, and the male of the weedy seadragon carries its eggs on the underside of its tail. Don’t miss either the bioluminescent coral, the garden eels that burrow into the seabed, and the razor fish is razor-thin like its name.

Finally, you may not actually spot the octopus: This master of disguise can make itself inconspicuous by looking like 15 different animals.

Number of species: 17

7. Frozen Ocean: Temperatures drop visibly as you move into this zone.

A giant case houses adorable 11 adorable Atlantic puffins, each named and pictured in a dedicated Wall of Fame. There are also giant spider cabs in a case, and equally big wolf eels in a tank. Another tank has a miniature underwater volcano.

Number of species: 12

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The National Aquarium in Abu Dhabi, which opened to visitors last week, is home to 46,000 creatures from 330 species, including creatures that are commonly not seen in the Middle East: Puffins, bull sharks and capybaras, for instance. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

8. Flooded Forest: Walking into this zone, with its sounds of dripping water, feels very like entering a rainforest, and that is the intended effect. You will immediately see the colourful frogs that climb trees in the Amazon rainforest, a tarantula that hides very effectively its case, and a majestic electric eel.

The adorable capybaras — the world’s largest rodents — will captivate you with their stares, and you may not be able to turn away from the colourful squirrel monkeys in the same enclosure.

Opposite this is Super Snake, a seven-metre female reticulated python that is the largest living snake in captivity!

Next to it, an enclosure houses freshwater rays, a pair of brightly coloured macaws, and even an iguana. If you’ve signed up for a ticket with an ‘animal encounter’, an aquarium staff member will help you even feed the rays.

There is a lot to see here, but make sure to take in the bull sharks as well. These are the only freshwater sharks one can see in the Middle East, and they are known for their strong bite.

Number of species: 37

9. Bu Tinah Island: This island is one of the UAE’s most famous protected areas, and its waters are home to the second largest population of dugongs in the world. Because people cannot visit this protected area, the aquarium has a massive tank that houses marine creatures that can be found in the island’s waters. While there are no dugongs, there are hammerhead sharks to see, as well as a raft of other fish.

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The underwater tunnel under the Bu Tinah Island Zone. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

If you’re lucky, you’ll also be able to see divers cleaning the cases and waving at you!

10. Behind the Scenes: This zone won’t be available to all visitors and are part of the ‘enhanced’ tickets. But if you opt for these, you may be able to ride a dhow over the Bu Tinah island tank, walk over a glass overwater bridge, or even feed the rays. In addition, you will be able to see the work that goes on behind the scenes to make sure that all the animals at the aquarium are healthy and safe.

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Look out for

Fun Facts: Little placards with fun information about marine animals

Khaled: A pearl diver rendered in CGI who shares important information in some zones

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Visitors inside The National Aquarium in Abu Dhabi. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Expected duration of visit

A walk through the zones takes at least an hour-and-a-half, apart from the behind-the-scene experiences.

Tickets and pricing

General Admission: Dh105 for a journey through zones 1-9.

Beyond the Glass: Dh130 for a tour of all the zones, plus a walk over the glass bridge.

Bu Tinah Dhow: Dh150 for a tour of zones 1-9, plus a ride in a glass-bottomed dhow over the Bu Tinah Island tank and a chance to feed the fish.

Animal Encounter: Dh180 for a tour of all the zones, plus a chance to meet either freshwater rays, Atlantic puffins, or sharks.

All Access: Dh200 for a chance to get all of the experiences available.

Location: Al Qana area, close to Al Maqtaa. The hub will soon house a cinema, restaurants, cafes, gaming zones and other facilities.