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Atlantis the Palm is a massive resort on Dubai’s Palm Jumeirah, one of the artificial island complexes built along Dubai’s coast. I visited in December 2011. My photos have been up for a few months, so this should help make some sense of them.
The 5-star hotel resort has four main marine animal attractions:
1 – Ambassador lagoon: an 11-million litre aquarium tank famous for temporarily housing a whale shark a few years ago. Currently highlights in this tank include several giant cobia, a small group of shortfin devil rays (Mobula kuhlii) and an assortment of sharks, rays and guitarfish. This main tank is visible from large viewing areas in the hotel itself (only accessible to guests), large windows in the lost chambers aquarium (see below) or from private areas, including hotel rooms and suites. There are very few viewing opportunities for non-paying visitors, but some of the areas which are supposed to only be accessible to guests are quite easy to sneak into.
2 – The lost chambers: the main aquarium area, this is a surprisingly plain space. This is the part I’ll be focussing on.
3 – Aquaventure tank: In Aquaventure, Atlantis’s water park, two slides pass through a large ‘shark tank’ which is home to a variety of reef species, including grey, blacktip and whitetip reef sharks. Cownose rays in the tank can be fed by visitors for an extra cost. There are large viewing windows which watch the slower slide (Shark attack), and the other slide, ‘Leap of faith’, is so fast that few people realise/believe that they went through the shark tank. Snorkelling experiences are also available in this tank.
4 – Dolphin bay: A large and pleasant-looking area consisting of three large on-show pools. Paying visitors interact with dolphins in the central pool (in front of a public viewing area) and dolphins in the two pools on either side are left without humans pestering them. An information centre offers some educational information on the dolphins.
As I mentioned above, because it’s the main aquarium, I’ll focus on the lost chambers, but am happy to answer any questions or provide more details on the other attractions.
The entire resort is themed as if the hotel is actually the ruins of the lost city of Atlantis. Geomorph has posted a review of the resort in the Bahamas, upon which Dubai’s hotel was based: Review of Atlantis Bahamas
The Lost Chambers is a separate attraction in Atlantis the Palm. The entry fee is quite high, and the aquarium itself is quite small – I only had about an hour to visit and found that I had time to spare. As with Atlantis Bahamas, each room, tank and corridor in the lost chambers is heavily themed with ‘artefacts’ and designs which are supposed to be from an Atlantean civilisation. Despite all this effort, the total lack of signs on any kind (whether about lost/ancient societies or even about the fish on display) meant that any chance of learning anything from the smaller rooms was lost. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a more significant educational opportunity almost completely wasted. Back-of-house tours and talks at feeding time have great educational value, but the focus is limited so for many animals it’s hard enough for visitors to confirm identification – let alone learn about them.
The aquarium itself is a series of rooms with Atlantean items, and tanks dotted around both in the smaller rooms and interconnecting corridors. The highlight of the visit is a set of three large rooms which look into the Ambassador lagoon.
After buying your ticket, the first chamber is a circular room with exits on both sides. In the centre of the room is a floor-to-ceiling cylindrical tank containing massive numbers of small fish. The website seems to claim that they’re anchovies – but they’re clearly not. The route around the aquarium is roughly a figure-of-eight (with an outer circuit and a couple of central chambers), so this room doubles up as an exit. I decided to start my visit by taking the doorway on the right.
The next chamber features a large tank on the right which showcases arowana, white giant gourami, large clown knifefish, redtail catfish, pacu, cichlids and several medium-sized arapaima. On the opposite wall is a large water feature, and in the middle of the room are a number of cushions for people to sit on. These cushions were set up all around the aquarium. Along the way to the next chamber are two tanks for moon jellyfish and sea nettles (again, the sea nettles appear mislabelled online).
The next room contains a tank for lots of different species of moray eel, as well as a few reef fish. There’s also a small reef tank housing some smaller fish. Turning left off the outer circuit, the next room is The Abyss; there’s a large structure in the centre of the room, and models of costumes/armour (?) in recesses all the way around. The only fish in here are a few volitans lionfish (accompanied by hermit crabs) in a medium-sized tank.
Next is The Workshop. In the centre of the room is perhaps the most interesting of the artefacts, but I’ve still got no idea what it was meant to be. On either side of the room are two fairly large tanks. The one on the left houses redbelly yellowtail fusiliers, a Napoleon fish and longfin batfish. The one on the right is home to leatherjackets, powder blue tangs, threadfins and flagtails, and it’s acrylic-backed, so it looks straight into the giant grouper tank beyond (which I saw later).
In the next room is a seahorse tank, which holds shrimpfish, a copperband butterflyfish, a blue-streaked cleaner wrasse and a few longsnout seahorses.
Back on the outer circuit, near the morays, there’s a spiny lobster tank which extends overhead. They’re labelled online as ‘scallop lobsters’, a new term to me. There was also a coral grouper in that tank.
The next room is the first in a series of three viewing chambers for the large ambassador lagoon tank. This is perhaps the smallest of the three, and in the corner is a tank for large catfishes. Redtail catfish and giant gourami appear again here, and there are also peacock bass, a tiger shovelnose catfish, and a highlight for me, Bagarius yarrelli - the giant devil catfish (or giant goonch). I only saw its tail, and the only reason I didn’t miss it completely was because I asked a member of staff at the touch pools.
The next room is the main Ambassador Lagoon viewing area, with massive windows and several cushion-seats. At the back of the room are some touch pools holding horsehoe crabs, sea cucumbers and several starfishes, including an African starfish. The Ambassador Lagoon itself is a very impressive exhibit, and seems to work really nicely.
The third viewing room is similar to the first, but instead of being lit with red lighting, it’s blue, and the catfish tank has been replaced by a tank for red-bellied piranhas. The next room’s focus is a tank which houses at least three giant groupers, with at least one smaller species alongside them. I think there were a few anchovies in this tank.
A nearby reef tank gives kids their dose of Nemo and Dory, and there’s a nice little mandarinfish too. Just beyond this is the shop which sells Atlantis memorabilia, and there’s a tank for cichlids inside. On the other side of the shop is a similar tank for bannerfish and damsels, and then a larger reef tank with a seating area. This tank was home to a very rich and colourful variety of fish, including several butterflyfish, a small zebra shark and at least five different species of anthias.
Next is the entrance chamber, the beginning and end of the tour.
Again, I’m happy to try and answer any questions. Apologies for the jumbled layout and the degree of detail in some areas – just without a map and signs, I thought I’d offer a bit more information.
Thank you for this thorough review, it sounds like this version of the attraction has more small feature tanks than the one in the Bahamas but has a similar fantasy/non-educational slant! For those of us that visit many aquariums, the lack of signage might be considered a refreshing alternative occasionally, although maddening for those of us trying to recount what was exhibited. However, as you point out, it is a missed opportunity to educate and if this aquarium is the only one that a person visits than the oppurtunity is lost entirely. Once the designers decided to focus on the exaggerated theme of the facility, I can understand why they would not want to clutter it up with signs; however their expert design skills could easily have been employed to integrate small species identification signs rendered in the design language of the whole creation.
I can see that it can be aesthetically more pleasing to have no signs but it would be nice to have some kind of informative substitute, like a thorough guidebook. Atlantis is in the odd position that neither of these are really suitable - signs might break 'the illusion' that they try so hard to create, and the collection changes so rapidly and moves around so much, that a decent guidebook would very quickly become outdated. From what I understand, the only substitute they offer are the back-of-house tours, which started fairly recently. I don't know how informative they are, and I think their focus is more on aquarium maintenance, but I've seen photos of people peering into different exhibits like the moray eels - so maybe there is some spread of knowledge?