Sunken Atlantis

Managing a fluid environment

Steve Kaiser is vice president of marine science and engineering at Dubai's Atlantis hotel, which houses the world's third-largest aquarium. With 12 million litres of water to look after, managing the fish is only half his job.

'My official job title is vice president of marine science and engineering,' says Steve Kaiser, sitting at his desk behind the scenes of the world's third-largest fish tank, 'but most people call me the Fish Guy.' To the outside world Steve's got the best job in the world, looking after 65,000 fish (only he calls them 'animals' because there are corals, mammals and other types of creature - but mostly fish).

The tank is in the famous Atlantis hotel in Dubai. This is the one that looks like two giant towers linked by an arch, and it's on 'the Palm', which is one of the world's biggest, and most complex land reclamation schemes. This is, of course, the very same Dubai where nothing gets done by halves. The reports that have dominated the media over the last six months have been of a construction industry gone bust - with salacious tales of countless professionals fleeing the United Arab Emirates, dumping cars at the airport with maxed-out credit cards left in their glove compartments. Whatever the case, Dubai's legacy is one where everything is big. There's the world's tallest building - the 828m Burj Khalifa - and the Dubai Mall is the world's largest shopping complex. It's no surprise, then, to find myself gazing into a fish tank known as the 'Ambassador Lagoon'.

And the Ambassador Lagoon is really big. It's as deep as two double-decker buses sat one on top of the other, and the glass needed to hold it all in place is as thick as a filing cabinet. Only it's not glass. According to Steve it's a kind of acrylic, and at 10m wide the main viewing pane is the largest piece of acrylic in the world. You can't use glass, he tells me, because if you made it that thick it would be too green to be able to see anything clearly. The acrylic is crystal clear - even at this thickness - and there's only one company in the world that makes it like this.

When it comes to the Ambassador Lagoon, Steve's the boss. 'Basically, if it's got water in it - and it's not a toilet or a bath tub, then I'm in charge.' And it's a huge logistical operation: from hotel management-style tasks, such as providing 300kg of restaurant-grade food for his 'guests' every day, to providing the medical facilities needed for if any of his animals goes sick. The biggest issue - and haven't we heard this so many times about this desert metroplis - is providing decent water for the animals. This is where the science, engineering and technology all get rolled into one.

The right conditions

Water management is the biggest demand on Steve's time, simply because it's the most important environmental factor in ensuring that his animals stay healthy and lead a stress-free existence. One of the markers for his success is whether the marine organisms breed. At the moment there are various species of shark producing pups, and so he's doing well.

Of course, the biggest challenge when presenting a marine exhibit of this size is to get the balance right between what the public sees as entertainment and the serious stuff that goes on behind the scenes. I ask Steve how close the animals are to being in a natural environment. 'I like to say it's better than the wild because the water here in the Gulf is quite turbid - it's cloudy with lots of particulate matter - there's a lot of dust in the air when the shamals [winds] come in. We're living in a nation of sand, and whatever you see on land is pretty much what we've got at the bottom of the ocean.'

This means that replicating the local sea environment would do little to give the hotel's punters much of a show. 'What you have here is a lot of sand and whenever there's a big weather event, it all gets stirred up and the water gets cloudy.' Also there's a lot of salt in the Arabian Gulf: in most parts of the world oceanic salinity is in the region of 35-36 parts of chloride per thousand. But in the UAE it's 41, with some areas close to shore, where there's not much mixing, rising to as much as 50-55 parts per thousand. In the baking heat of the Middle East the water temperature can at times reach 35-38C, which is, as Steve says, 'very warm'. The problem is, the warmer the water is, the less oxygen it can carry, which makes it a tough environment for the animals to survive.

'So what we do here is make it better,' says Steve. 'We filter the tank, and we put natural seawater in (at a salinity of 41 parts per thousand). But the difference is that we never really let our tanks get very warm. We try to not let it rise above 23C, which is very comfortable for the animals. During the winter the water can go down to 19C and we let that happen. We don't heat the water, but we do chill the water.'

Steve is keen to point out that, while the Atlantis in Dubai is a hotel for humans, his fish are guests too, and just as the hotel is air-conditioned for the comfort of the paying tourist 'this is also a hotel for fish and so we sort of air condition the tank too.' At Atlantis there's also a dedicated medical facility for fish and there are two full-time vets to look after the marine mammals. 'Sometimes we get fish brought in by our local fishermen, and when they come in they might be a bit traumatised from contact with nets. They sometimes get injured here too. There might be a territorial scuffle where one or two get bitten up, and so we have the capability to bring them out, put them in isolation tanks and treat them with a broad spectrum of antibiotics.' He says they're also prone to parasites. 'Fish are like people and they get sick when they become stressed. So we want to take the stress out.' The way Steve and his team of medical, nutritional, and scientific staff do this - along with the vast array of instrumentation, fluid handling equipment and computers - is to 'give them the best water, the very best food, the best habitat'.

The habitat, however, doesn't even attempt to replicate what's found in the wild. Anyone viewing the huge body of water through one of the main viewing panes will think that they're looking at a film set for a movie about the lost civilisation of the sunken city of Atlantis, which is the whole point of the illusion. There are toppled obelisks, columns, arcades of pillars, town squares and other ruins, all designed to along the lines of a typical Roman ruin at, say, Ephesus or Leptis Magna. 'But what's natural?' asks Steve. 'If you look at habitat as architecture, you've got to ask does a squirrel see a tree as a tree, or does it see it as a house and a source of food? When you go out on the reef it's the cracks, crevices and ledges created by the coral that form the homes for the fish, not the coral itself.'

He goes on to explain that, as with the human built environment, 'you can go natural and have it all made of wood, or you can be ultra modern. When I look at the environment for the fish I'm just asking: are there enough places in there for the fish to call home? It doesn't matter if it's made of coral or concrete or rubber. All our underwater architecture here is encrusted with algae and coralline and coral. It's all very, very natural.'

Even so, some of the larger fish - the rays, sharks, wrasses, groupers and the whale shark - don't rely on cluttered, intricate nesting environments in the wild, preferring instead open water. Says Steve: 'If you go through the tank, there are also wide-open spaces and a shallow area. We try to mix the different habitats to mimic the environments the animals are looking for.'

A day in the life

'I don't claim to know everything about managing an aquarium,' says Steve, 'but after 40 years of doing this, I guess I know more than most.' He says that the main management challenge is in the fact that nothing is constant, largely because you're dealing with the unpredictability of the individual. 'One day you could be feeding 20kg to an exhibit and tomorrow they could be eating nothing. My job is to figure out what's going on. Sometimes animals just go off food, but we need to know if they're getting sick or coming into the breeding season.'

He tells me that, as with all managers of large-scale projects, he encounters a fair amount of paperwork, while a large part of his work is 'making sure that people are doing what they need to be doing; making sure that we have enough drugs here and enough spare equipment, so that if something breaks we can replace it.' But the important thing, he tells me, is to spend time looking at the fish: 'most good aquarists, just like good managers, are good behaviourists. Just as people won't tell you what's wrong, the animals can't, and so you have to watch them. I would say that half my time is spent just watching animals. It's a dynamic living environment that you're sitting outside of, and to manage it properly you have to try to get inside the heads of the organisms you're managing.'

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