Atlantis defends whale shark action
A top marine expert at Dubai's Atlantis hotel has spoken openly about the fate of the rare whale shark that was kept at its aquarium and caused an international wave of protest from campaigners.
Speaking during a weekend of activities geared to educate the public about conservation of sharks, marine sciences vice president Steve Kaiser told 7DAYS: “I genuinely believe she did really, really, well.”
The 4m-long female shark was on view to visitors at the aquarium from August 2008 until March 2010. The Atlantis team was accused of “detaining” it by animal rights groups, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
When it was eventually released, the shark was fitted with a tracking tag, but the tag dropped off just a few weeks before she left the Arabian Gulf and her fate remains unknown.
Kaiser told 7DAYS: “Both myself and the staff were very privileged to rescue and rehabilitate the whale shark and send her back to the wild.
“She was found in a very shallow, salty, hot lagoon off Jebel Ali. We got a call asking if we could rescue her.
“We found her lying on the bottom.”
The Atlantis team took the shark to its massive salt-water aquarium at the hotel on Palm Jumeirah. Kaiser, who has been involved in the first-ever births of Black-Nose and Caribbean Reef Sharks in a man-made environment, said the team then nursed the rescued whale shark back to health.
He added: “We released her back in a better condition than she was found.” Kaiser admits that Atlantis received a lot of criticism, adding: “I think we did get a lot of bad press, but basically we did what we said we were going to do, so I don’t know what the criticism was all about.
“Having the shark here was the highlight of my career, being able to help an animal like a whale shark! I should just have retired there and then having achieved that.”
Kaiser, who has worked on marine projects around the world, said the team wanted to release the beast within months but a spurt in the growth of algae, known as a ‘red tide’, that could have harmed the shark, stopped them. “We were looking at releasing her the next spring after she came here, but we had a red tide and waited a whole year until the conditions were good enough to introduce her back to the wild,” he said. “I genuinely believe the animal did not become domesticated and all the signs showed she did really, really well.”
Kaiser said he and all the other staff at Atlantis love animals and wouldn’t be in the job if they didn’t. He made his comments as world-renowned shark expert Mike Rutzen arrived at Atlantis to speak to about his experiences free diving with Great White Sharks in South Africa.
Rutzen, who has introduced stars and royalty to Great Whites, was at the first of six family fun days at the Lost Chambers Aquarium, Atlantis, on Friday. Rutzen, who runs a fully-licensed shark cage diving operation in Gansbaai, South Africa, is one of the few people in the world who has looked predatory Great Whites in the eye, swimming outside the safety of a cage.
Celebrities make regular pilgrimages to his business, Shark Diving Unlimited - Halle Berry and Brad Pitt are just two of the high-profile visitors. Berry spent a week with Rutzen and his team filming a new movie ‘Dark Tide’.
Rutzen said he was impressed by the Lost Chambers, which is home to 650,000 marine animals, including sharks, eels, rays, piranhas, sea horses and hundreds of exotic and tropical fish. He said: “I wish I could see the ocean like I see it here. I run a kids’ education programme in South Africa and I take the kids out on my boat. At Atlantis it is much easier, the animals are on display.”
Many sharks are protected species with over-fishing bringing some to near-extinction. The love of shark fin soup in Asia has put a high price on their heads.
Dubai is a major export hub for sharks because of its shipping links with China and Hong Kong and the good price they fetch because of the high number of dealers in the emirate.
Not much is known about the shark population in the Arabian Gulf, but conservationist Rima Jabado, who also took part in the Atlantis family fun day, has embarked on a study. She said: “The UAE declares 400-500 tonnes of dried shark products (annually) - but we don’t know if they’re coming from regional or local waters.”