Take a tour the city's impressive aquatic attractions
If there’s one thing this city knows how to do well, it’s underwater displays. Not only is Dubai home to two of the world’s largest aquariums, at The Dubai Mall and Atlantis The Palm, the emirate also houses a dolphinarium, a rehabilitation turtle enclosure, the Dolphin Bay sanctuary and a handful of enormous hotel tanks.
Yet while the aquariums are pretty to look at and entice many an open-mouthed gawper, they’re not just for show. A couple of hotels are also involved in giving back to the sea, as the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project at Jumeirah Group illustrates. This year alone, 250 turtles have been rehabilitated and released back into the wild thanks to the programme. Following news that the Burj Al Arab has reopened its aquarium after a three-month refurb and Dubai Dolphinarium in Creek Park has recently launched a new show, we thought it was high time we visited the city’s best underwater hangouts to admire the marine life and learn about the species that live beneath the surface.
Burj Al Arab Size: Lobby tanks 500,000 litres; Al Mahara predator tank 300,000 litres.
The flashy hotel boasts a mammoth aquarium system, only a third of which is visible from the lobby. A recent refurb has jazzed up the internal lighting in the tanks, created cave systems and revamped the artificial coral. As you’d expect in a seven-star hotel, the fish here are well looked after: a whiteboard inside the feeding room shows they have a specific diet of mostly fish and squid, and are fed different meals on each day of the week.
Further behind the scenes, the aquarium specialists have a high-tech centre with all sorts of monitoring equipment. They’re on call round the clock to be notified if there is a problem in the tank, whether it’s a leak or a change in the water parameters.
An intensive care unit for sick or injured turtles is nestled 18m below sea level in the basement of the Burj Al Arab. The turtles stay in this area until they’re well enough to be moved to the enclosure at Mina A’Salam, where they learn to get back on their flippers, so to speak.
Species: Guests can make friends with female zebra shark Zebedee, a resident of the tank in Al Mahara restaurant. She’s the first of her species to deliver pups without having mated, a process known as ‘parthenogenesis’. Other species include bamboo sharks, clown fish, yellow and blue tang, black tips, a humphead wrasse and a guitar shark (yes, she looks like a Fender). Free; hotel and restaurant guests only. Burj Al Arab (04 364 7555).
Mina A’Salam turtle enclosure Size: Large tank 22m x 16m x 16m; small tank 8m x 14m x 10m.
This turtle lagoon forms part of Jumeirah’s Turtle Rehabilitation Project, founded in 2004, which has cared for more than 550 turtles. It’s divided into two sections, one for large reptiles and one for smaller (so there’s no chance of bust-ups): it allows the turtles to learn how to forage and regain their buoyancy before they’re released into the wild. The centre houses a huge male turtle who weighs 100kg – surprising considering he eats mainly cucumbers and lettuce.
Species: The venue is home to green turtles, a loggerhead and critically endangered hawksbill turtles.
Activities: Public turtle feeding takes place at 11am on Wednesdays and 1pm on Fridays. There are also free educational talks on Wednesdays at 11am. Turtle releases usually take place from October to December and March to July. See www.facebook.com/turtle.rehabilitation for info. Free. Open 24 hours. Mina A’Salam (04 366 8888).
Dubai Dolphinarium Size: Dolphinarium 5,000 sq m; salt-water show pool 30m x 16m.
Dubai Dolphinarium is less of an aquarium and more of a marine mammal theme park: it was the first (and remains the largest) fully air-conditioned indoor dolphinarium in the Middle East. It’s very child-friendly, and although spectators can’t observe the dolphins at rest or play, families can enjoy activities and performances. The facility features one show pool surrounded by arena-style seating, three training pools and a 600,000-litre private habitat for the dolphins, plus a separate area for seals.
Species of note: Five black-sea bottlenose dolphins and four Northern fur seals currently call this place home.
Activities on offer: The main event here is the dolphin show, which takes place three times a day. During the hour-long show, spectators can watch the dolphins and seals perform tricks and stunts, accompanied by upbeat music and flashing lights. There is also plenty of audience participation: you can bid on a picture painted by a dolphin (really), win a trip round the pool in a dingy towed by one of the mammals, or even organise a swimming session with Flipper and his friends. The venue also offers photo sessions, where visitors can have their picture taken with the animals in one of three poses. Dolphin show Dhs99 (adult), Dhs49 (child); Dhs120 (VIP adult), Dh80 (VIP child). Swim with dolphins from Dhs550 per person; photo session from Dhs80. Shows Mon-Thu 11am and 6pm; Fri-Sat 11am, 3pm and 6pm. Creek Park, Umm Hurair 2, www.dubaidolphinarium.ae (04 336 9773).
Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo Size: 10 million litres.
This sizeable aquarium tank, with the world’s largest acrylic panel, is guaranteed to make you gasp. Of the 140-plus species in the tank, the sand tiger sharks are perhaps the most thrilling, looming over you as they stalk the darkest parts of the walk-through tunnel. If you take one of the guided tours through the aquarium, you might even get a shark tooth to keep (don’t worry, the management don’t pull them out – they just collect the ones that fall out naturally).
Species of note: The aquarium houses the largest collection of sand tiger sharks in the world, while the zoo upstairs is home to some of the world’s most poisonous fish, including the angel fish, box fish and stone fish. Giant spider crabs are among the creepiest marine creatures you’ll spot as you meander through the second-floor zoo, while two species of penguins put on an energetic display. There’s also an area dedicated to reptiles and creepy crawlies.
Activities on offer: Take a behind-the-scenes tour, a trip in the glass-bottom boat, or go snorkelling in a cage. Qualified divers can try the new speciality dives, which include an exploratory swim around the tank, a shark conservation dive with underwater photography tips, and a shark-feeding dive, interacting with the animals. From Dhs55 per person, including aquarium tunnel and zoo access. Dive packages from Dhs290, annual membership from Dhs250. Open Sun-Wed 10am-10pm, Thu-Sat 10am-midnight. The Dubai Mall (04 448 5200).
The Lost Chambers at Atlantis Size: 11 million litres.
True to the hotel’s name, The Lost Chambers are themed on the ancient Greek city of Atlantis, said to have sunk to the bottom of the sea. As part of the attraction, there’s a story woven in about how these original ‘chambers’ were discovered, complete with supposedly authentic relics on display throughout the venue. The theme, albeit fantastical, does provide an atmospheric setting, and the dimmed lighting ensures the illuminated tanks look spectacular. The centrepiece is the huge Ambassador Lagoon, which houses hundreds of creatures.
Species of note: The aquarium is home to more than 65,000 species, but it’s the obvious ones that attract the most gawping visitors: check the fearsome sharks, marble rays and cownose rays in the main lagoon. The individual tanks throughout the chambers house some huge groupers, plus tiny jellyfish, lobsters, crabs, ‘Nemo’ fish and a tank full of the most colourful fish we’ve ever seen – a haze of implausibly bright shades of orange, purple and pink.
Activities on offer: There are guided tours on the hour from 1pm to 7pm Sunday to Thursday, and 10am to 8pm on Friday and Saturday. There’s also an interactive Aquatheatre show, offering fun educational lessons, daily at 10.30pm and 3.30pm. And don’t miss the fish feedings, where a pair of scuba divers enter the main tank to perform an instructional show. This takes place between 10am and 4pm on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Dhs75 (UAE residents); Dhs100 (non residents). Open daily 10am-10pm. Atlantis The Palm, Palm Jumeirah (04 426 0000).
Dining under the sea Want to eat while you watch? Try these three restaurants with aquarium views…
Al Mahara One of the signature dining venues at the Burj Al Arab, this seafood restaurant pulls out all the stops in an attempt to impress. Guests can sit in the curved dining space that sweeps around the huge tank and try a creative seafood menu, with an equally huge price tag. Burj Al Arab, Jumeirah (04 301 7600).
Aquarium This is one of Dubai’s original venues with an aquarium view. It may seem modest in comparison with the newer destinations, but the wide glass windows mean diners can choose between views of the aquarium or the creek. Not put off by seeing what you’re eating? The venue hosts a seafood brunch every Friday, with a wide selection including sushi. Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club, Deira (04 295 6000).
Ossiano With Wesley Berghoff (Time Out Dubai’s Young Chef of the Year 2011) at the helm, this Atlantis venue offers a menu of modern, creative dishes with a distinctly Mediterranean tone. The decor is glitzy and gold-tinted, boasting a prime view of Atlantis’s Ambassador Lagoon aquarium and its multitude of finned residents. Atlantis The Palm, Palm Jumeirah (04 426 262).