To presume that a trip to the Dubai Mall means dragging the children round miles of shops, with only the promise of an ice cream to minimise the whining, would be to presume wrongly. First, the enormous aquarium (the largest viewing panel in the world, according to Guinness World Records) with its nerve sharks, rays and rare Napoleon fish, will keep them busy for at least 20 minutes. Second, the world's biggest sweet shop is located opposite that. And third, there's the Underwater Zoo. The aquarium alone would be draw enough for most children, but for Dh75 you get access to a winding labyrinth of smaller tanks filled with species that are unable to exist alongside the denizens of the main tank.
Even better are the current Night Safaris, for which visitors are issued headlamps, so that when the lights are turned down they can spot the creatures that come out only at night. These include a scorpion that looks black by day, but in the dark glows white; a shy but enormous spider; and a gecko that's known as a "dragon". The specially darkened conditions heighten the experience of seeing the other animals.
There is something surreal about watching a romp of otters frolic in a tank only metres away from where people are bulk-buying babygros in Mothercare; but, thanks to the Amazon jungle theming, you soon forget where you are. The zoo is split into three sections - freshwater, saltwater and creepy crawlies - and is manned by a team of knowledgeable guides. Our guide was Kareem, and with him at our side we wandered past schools of piranha, hatchet fish, angel fish and cichlids.
Our headlamps were not as useful as I'd hoped, since most of the creatures, including the surprisingly cute giant water rat, were easy to spot. However, it was a great way to attract the attention of some of the animals, particularly the penguins, which came up to the glass when I peered inside.
As well as the usual rays and clown fish, there are enough "deadly creatures" to hold children's attention. The world's most poisonous fish, the stonefish (found here in the UAE), skulked at the bottom of its tank next to the lionfish, and just along the passage from the puffer fish. The experience is also nicely interactive. Kareem invited me to hold some food on the tip of my finger over a tank of archerfish. The fish knocked it off with a jet of water so that it fell into their tank and they could eat it (their specialised mouths can shoot water up to five metres; apparently they almost never miss). There is a whole tank of creatures, including sea stars, sea cucumbers and horseshoe crabs, which children are permitted to touch under supervision.
The highlight for me, though, was the transparent platform suspended above the main tank, on which you can stand and spot the creatures swimming below. Perhaps it was the frisson of fear (plus mild vertigo) that came with hovering over a pool of sharks, but being able to see the "back of house" section of the aquarium made it feel less like a theme park.
The Night Safari idea may be a marketing ploy to get you into the zoo, but it was one I was happy to be had by. That and the headlamp, which, thrillingly, I was allowed to take home.
Entrance to the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo costs Dh75. The Night Safaris run until February 29; visit www.thedubaiaquarium.com
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