Abu Dhabi's Al Qana development is due to open next year, and we’re sure we’re not the only ones who can’t wait to explore this impressive dining and entertainment hub.
One of the key features of the area will be the National Aquarium, which, with over 300 different species and 35,000 creatures, is the biggest in the Middle East and sounds absolutely incredible.
Things got even more exciting when in an exclusive chat with Time Out, Fouad Mashal, CEO of Al Barakah International Investment (the developers of Al Qana) mentioned that the aquarium will have an enormous seven-metre long python, which will be the biggest reptile in the UAE.
With the attraction about 70 percent complete, general manager Paul Hamilton (left) tells us why this is his best project to date (even if he is keeping tight-lipped on the other big features).
Are you excited about the opening?
Absolutely, this is aquarium number 12 for me and it has to be my best. I was taken from Dubai Aquarium and brought here with the challenge of outdoing what I did there. That was the game plan and I think we’re on track to completing it. It will have double the journey time of its competition and double the exhibits. There’s going to be a lot more to see.
What are the big attractions?
We have some very special creatures that we haven’t revealed yet, and they will get a huge amount of attention. We are talking both large, unique, charismatic and aggressive, one in particular has a huge reputation for being dangerous. The exhibits have been expanded to go into never-done-before areas and some will set records.
What other things can people see?
Other aquariums have maybe three different environments, but we are going to cover ten different zones and geographical areas. Guests will move between sections on the jewels of Arabia, a Red Sea shipwreck, a submarine in the Mediterranean, areas like the Amazon and the Pacific and right through to the big Boutina tank at the end. Each will have its own exciting theme. We will create so much diversity that you’ll feel like you’ve seen everything there is to be seen. There will be stop offs where kids can get physical with equipment, water, and new technologies, and the longest tunnel in the Middle East at the end as well. We’ll have human shows in the tanks and experiences where guests can go back of house and learn how to care for the animals, You’ll also have the chance to feed and swim with the more friendly ones, and also the least friendly as well, but we’ll keep you safe.
So you’re focusing on local wildlife as well?
We’ve dedicated a huge tank to the Boutina reserve which is just off Abu Dhabi. It was nominated for the Seven Natural Wonders of the world and it came close. It’s very highly ranked as an important eco system and there’s a heap of turtles out there.
Because we are the National Aquarium we need to look at what we’ve got here in the UAE and make sure people learn about it.
Where do the creatures come from?
We have rules about how we acquire animals. Typically we’re looking for anything that was captive bred in the zoo and aquarium communities; there’s a lot of movement around the world. There will be a lot of fish from the wild as well, and that all comes under close scrutiny. We’re very careful to make sure the suppliers are environmentally conscious. We avoid anything that migrates or is overly intelligent and the public will see that the animals are all very comfortable. We will use a huge amount of seawater but it’s a fully recycled system with only 10 percent of water needing to be refreshed, the rest is reused. It’s very efficient in that respect. There will be at least 15 nationalities in the specialist team, as we are recruiting from around the world, which is interesting and cool to manage. But we’ve all got one common goal, and I enjoy that.
Will it be an interactive attraction?
Yes, and I’ve been challenged to come up with ways of getting information across that haven’t been used before. There will be everything from apps to holograms, and school groups will have their age range catered for exactly. We will be hoping to get 50,000 pupils through a year.
So it’s about 70-percent complete at the moment?
Yes, and it’s about to get really crazy. When the animals start to arrive the whole team feels responsible for them and we will all be here six or seven days a week and between 17 and 20 hours a day. I’ve done this a few times, so I know what to expect. But it’s very fulfilling when you finish and you know you did it well and the animals are happy. It’s a rewarding process in the end. It’s just hard work and a very big responsibility.
Will you be involved with transporting the animals?
Sometimes I’ll fly all the way over to where we’re getting the animal from and spend time with it and the people caring for it, and then fly all the way back with them. People will be surprised to learn that I can be a passenger on a plane just watching a movie, but down below I have a two-metre shark swimming in a tank. We use a lot of commercial airlines. I think if people knew what was below them they would be confused, like “there’s a hammerhead shark downstairs? How is that possible at 30,000 feet in the air?”. We use specialised transport containers and everything is prepared to be done in a set amount of time, we make sure no one stops us and it gets there safe.
Do you have a favourite animal to work with?
I’ve been a shark guy my whole life. On my holidays I go diving with sharks, so I deal with them in my work and on my breaks. For some reason I tend to be drawn to creatures with big reputations like crocodiles, sharks, snakes and so on. But I’ve made sure there are a lot of cute, fuzzy creatures in the aquarium as well. You’d think I’d say penguins but they’re actually not that nice. Sharks are way nicer and they don’t have bad intentions, but if you lay down in front of a penguin it will try and eat you. It’s all contrary to what people believe. Penguins scare me to be honest.
The man at the top
In an exclusive chat, we speak to Fouad Mashal, CEO of Al Barakah International Investment, the developers behind Al Qana, to find out more about the whole area
“Al Qana is the first destination of its type in Abu Dhabi. It’s a family destination with loads of activities and 11 buildings. There’s the first stand-alone cinema in Abu Dhabi with 15 screens, the National Aquarium, and a huge wellness centre with a gym and spa, it’s the only one in the region to have such advanced facilities.
“There will be two separate buildings for kids aged three to 12, and 12 and above. Then shops, restaurants and coffee shops to suit everyone and every income. There will be everything from casual to high-end dining. It will be an amazing project, and we’ve worked on the landscape a lot. We have 200 olive trees from Florence, Italy which are each 300 or 400 year’s old. I went there and chose them myself.
“We have a specialist consultant for the lighting, he’s worked on EXPO Milan, in Las Vegas, the mall in Singapore and the bridge in Singapore. The lighting and landscaping will be amazing, I’m sure about that.
“It’s very near to five hotels, and it’s right in the centre of Abu Dhabi and not far away from anyone. It’s in the heart, which will be an advantage. I’ve been in Abu Dhabi for 45 years, so I know it well and I know that it’s a good location and easy to get to. We have enough parking for about 3,000 cars.
“We also have a license for a taxi boat and parking for more than 100 yachts.
Families can easily spend a whole day here without needing to drive anywhere. There are so many things to do and places to eat, all in one place.
“Most of the project is built around entertainment for families. We have the biggest skateboard park in the region and the architect has used the latest technology in the world.
“You can also rent bikes and cycle along the 1.2km paths, there are three levels for people walking and cycling, and four bridges connecting one side to the other. It will be a landmark for tourists to come and see as well as for residents to use. People around the world know Ferrari World Abu Dhabi and Louvre Abu Dhabi, but Al Qana will be the new tourist destination.”