Abu Dhabi's National Aquarium welcomes over 100,000 visitors since opening in November

The largest aquarium in the Middle East is home to 46,000 animals


Rasha Abu Baker

Published: Fri 11 Feb 2022, 12:44 PM

In most cases, when people hear the word aquarium, they think of an establishment where aquatic creatures are kept, in essentially what they imagine as a zoo-like exhibit.

Yet, The National Aquarium (TNA) in Abu Dhabi is far more than just a place visitors can go to admire animals on display; it is a venue which actively partakes in the conservation of vulnerable and endangered species in the region, as well as educating thousands of students a year about the different environments and habitats, and the importance of learning how we can preserve them for future generations.

Covering more than 9,000 square feet, in the Al Qana attraction, Abu Dhabi's National Aquarium is the largest aquarium in the Middle East and home to 46,000 animals spread throughout 10 zones. The aquarium houses more than 200 sharks and rays, representing 25 different species, and all the animals are cared for by a team of 80 sea-life experts.

New Zealand-born Paul Hamilton, the aquarium’s general manager and curator, has a vast range of experience, having built 13 aquariums around the world, including in New Zealand, Australia, China, Kazakhstan, and Russia. He said the aquarium is of great significance to the UAE.

“This aquarium is important for the UAE because all past projects were flamboyant, whereas TNA is really infusing a lot of heritage. I have applied everything I learnt from past projects here, this is definitely my best work,” he said.

The aquarium’s multiple zones take guests on a journey through different geographical locations around the world. These include the UAE's Natural Treasures zone, which features a deep-dive into the magical world of Arabian pearl fishing; the Red Sea Wreck, an experience of underwater exploration where you can come face-to-fin with hundreds of fish and coral typically found in the Arabian Red Sea; the Atlantic Cave, where you can discover creatures that typically hide in the tiniest nooks and crannies such as lobsters and sea sponges; the Frozen Ocean where Arctic sea birds and fish live in icy waters; and the Flooded Forest where tropical birds roam free and which is now home to ‘Super Snake’, the largest living snake on display in the world.

“We have a huge diversity of animals, the most exhibits in one place in the country, and the longest aquatic journey in the country. A lot of storytelling, a lot of conservation, and most importantly, we are really celebrating the UAE,” Hamilton said.

The UAE's Natural Treasures zone pays homage to the country’s historic roots, where visitors can witness first-hand how oysters create pearls in one of nature’s wonders while exploring the rich diversity of animals that inhabit the coasts of the Eastern Arabian Peninsula.

The native animals found in UAE's Natural Treasures Zone are the hawksbill sea turtles, rescued sea turtles, common lionfish, threadfin trevallies and yellowtail tangs, and this is where Amal (which means ‘hope’ in Arabic), a loggerhead turtle, is being cared for after being found entangled in a fishing net that was abandoned by local fishermen. Amal was carefully transported to the aquarium for urgent care after losing two of her flippers. Because of this, Amal will not be able to survive alone back in the wild and is now permanently housed in the facility.

Others who can be nursed back to health and have their strength restored, are released back into the wild as part of TNA’s partnership with the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi (EAD) to rescue, rehabilitate and release native wildlife in the emirate. So far, more than 250 stranded sea turtles have been rescued, rehabilitated and released.

Hamilton said: “We have the Wildlife Rescue Programme, something I am super proud of; it is our partnership with EAD, and essentially we work together to solve some of the big wildlife crises that are going on in the Gulf.”

In the not so distant past, Hamilton said there were situations where whale sharks became trapped in shallow waters in man-made canals.

“On one occasion, EAD worked with us to come up with the solutions to move the whale shark back into the Arabian Gulf and it was a difficult process, we are talking huge, seven metre-long, powerful animals. I’m still wearing some scars from that day. It is a highlight for me to be able to carry out that kind of work and it helps solidify our place in conservation and education.

“It was a huge success and we managed to get the whale shark out of the shallows and back into the Arabian Gulf, we pimped it up with a satellite tag so we could see where it was going and we tracked it all the way back into the whale shark aggregations so we know that its successfully went back to its home environment," he said.

Hamilton went on to say that since TNA opened its doors in November, it has welcomed over 100,000 visitors to view the diversity of creatures.

“We have over 25 species of sharks and rays in the aquarium, which is the biggest diversity of sharks and rays in the region as well. Obviously, we are most proud of the hammer heads, but we are proud to include species like bull sharks and lemon sharks and a lot of popular sharks that are not often seen in aquariums.”


Hamilton's personal favourite attraction is the hammerhead shark. “Primarily because they are such a difficult creature to work with due to their timid nature. We started with hammerheads and then built everything around them, that’s how technical the shark is. But for the general public, they like our capybara exhibit, mixed in with the monkeys, the rainforest in general; we are getting a lot of feedback from visitors that the birds flying around is a highlight for them.”

Hamilton concluded by saying that there is a lot to watch for in the future. “This is our first year, so imagine this is what we opened with and remember that we will always be changing, always introducing new exhibits, new species and trying to improve. Anyone who sees us this year, will get something new next year, guaranteed.”

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