01 December 2008

At a guided tour of the Dubai Aquarium

"Can eat or not?" is apparently not a uniquely Singaporean point of view. As this wry account of a guided tour of the 65,000-fish Dubai Atlantis Aquarium reveals. Just because a guided tour is available, doesn't necessarily mean the appropriate marine conservation values are imparted.
If wishes were fishes, I wouldn’t be here:
A resident of the aquarium at the Atlantis hotel

Randi Sokoloff / The National


Tastes like fish
The National 27 Nov 08;
Kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus... tasty? The Atlantis serves up piscatorial knowledge to Roland Hughes.

Atlantis, the multi-billion-dirham hotel on the Palm Jumeirah, is flashy even by Dubai’s standards, a glittery relic to a time that never was. Nowhere is this more evident than in its aquarium, which plays host to a gaudy clash of mythologies: underwater worlds, alien invaders and faux-Greek architecture.

For a fish tank that so stunningly displays its contents – ultra-thick glass magnifies its 65,000 fish to make them more visible – the Atlantis aquarium is surprisingly coy about who its inhabitants actually are. Not a single sign can be found telling the public what species any of the fish are, leaving visitors to play an underwater guessing game. Only Sammy, the giant whale shark who has attracted almost as many column inches as Barack Obama in recent months, is recognisable amid the vast swarms of fish on display.

The hotel’s guides, however, have developed an unusual methodology for informing the public about sea life.

“This is very tasty,” says one enthusiastic guide clad like a waterborne Indiana Jones, gesturing at a fish of unrevealed breed. “We eat this where I come from. It is very popular, very meaty.” The fish gawps on, oblivious to the fact that the cowboy-hatted man on the other side of the glass is thinking “dinner”. It feels like going to the Al Ain Zoo and having the wardens extol the virtues of eating lion meat.

The next specimen is even less lucky. He is on display for everyone to touch, feel and wonder where kebab skewers would fit best. He’s a horseshoe crab, one of the ugliest of all the beasts on show at Atlantis, resembling as he does a face-hugging monster from the film Alien after a bad haircut.

“It tastes like crab,” its handler informs me without irony. She lifts the seemingly comatose crab out of the tank and turns it over to reveal a desperately flailing set of at least a dozen legs, all frantically clawing in the air, searching for ground that is not there. “The best part is under here,” she explains, lifting the crab’s thin, long tail and poking it where it certainly does not wish to be poked. “They have a lot of meat under this part.” She pops her victim back into the shallow tank, where it shuffles along to its colleagues, some of whom flop around on their backs. Apparently 10 per cent of horseshoe crabs die because they cannot right themselves after flipping over – US crab lovers have launched a campaign called Just Flip ‘Em, but it has clearly not hit Atlantis yet.

Last of all on my tour is the Queensland Grouper, one of the largest, meanest and least energetic fish I have ever encountered. Its guide, a knowledgeable and enthusiastic women, is the best yet, and tells me everything I should know and more about this less-than-noble animal. Its mouth is so powerful that it can, apparently, suck a grown man into its stomach in one gulp.

“It is very much like the cod or the hammour that we eat here,” my guide informs. “But it is more oily than the hammour, very tasty.”

No Atlantis representatives were available for comment as to whether it was company policy to discuss the taste of the aquarium’s fish.

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