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Jaws are still working after whale shark's alleged release

The Atlantis says it has released its whale shark back into the sea - but lack of proof has caused concern.

There is, as any fan of police dramas knows, no murder without a body. On the other hand, there is also no resolution of a kidnap stand-off without proof of life. This week neither was on offer as the management of the Atlantis hotel, on Dubai's Palm Jumeirah, contrived to make a bad public relations situation rather worse.

For the past 18 months the resort has been criticised for what has widely been perceived as the seizure in 2008 of a young female whale shark as a star turn for its Lost Chambers aquarium. The four-metre long animal was "rescued" at the end of August 2008, shortly before the Atlantis opened its doors to guests. The timing fuelled scepticism about the Atlantis's claims that the animal was found in distress and needed looking after.

As soon as the hotel announced it had captured the animal, a succinctly entitled Facebook page surfaced: "Set the whale shark free from the Atlantis aquarium Dubai". Now, the Atlantis says, the animal has been released. Local press reports say the shark was put back into the sea on the eastern end of The Palm along the sea wall boulders in a clandestine pre-dawn operation to ensure the area was free of boats whose propellers could harm it.

But without the testimony of independent witnesses or photographic proof this latest twist in the story has merely added to conspiracy theories. "I was initially overjoyed to hear of [the] alleged release," wrote one poster on the travel website Trip Advisor this week, "but I now think it seems so unlikely that Atlantis would have done it in such a cloak-and-dagger fashion if they had nothing to hide."

Another posting read: "Strong rumours whale shark died - any info?". Yet, despite the potentially positive PR that might have been generated, the Atlantis has still not produced any pictures of the release. Lisa Perry, of the Emirates Wildlife Society - World Wildlife Fund (EWS), said the attitude of the Atlantis throughout the 18-month episode had been "disappointing". All approaches by her organisation had been ignored.

"From the very beginning when the whale shark was captured, the EWS has been requesting the release of the animal, because of its chances of survival in the wild being greater than in a hotel aquarium," she said. The welfare of captive whale sharks has been a matter for concern since two died in the US in 2007. Other than the Atlantis in Dubai, Georgia Aquarium was the only aquarium outside Asia to house whale sharks, the world's biggest fish. The cause of both deaths remains unclear.

In a written statement issued earlier this week, Steve Kaiser, Atlantis vice president of marine and science engineering, said "outsiders" had not been invited to witness the release to ensure the shark's safety. The animal, he added, was in good health and had been tagged for research purposes and released off the east side of the Palm on Thursday last week. The time was right for the release because conditions had been perfect. "The health and well-being of the animal has always been our number one priority," he added.

Yet Kerzner International Holdings, the owner of the Atlantis, has not always been so protective about the privacy of animals during releases. In May 2008, invited press were on hand to document the release of Zeus, a giant manta ray that had spent three years at the Atlantis's Paradise Island resort in the Bahamas. The 1,000lb creature, suspended in a cargo net, was airlifted by helicopter and dangled for a photo op in front of the resort's fake Mayan temple.

Confused whale sharks have turned up off Dubai before. Dubai Marina has had at least three unexpected visitors, the most recent last year. In 2005, members of the Emirates Diving Association worked with Emaar and the police to stop boat traffic and shepherd a young shark to safety. Ibrahim al Zu'bi, the director of environment and research for the EDA, who has worked on a programme tagging whale sharks in the Seychelles, said the association had contacted the Atlantis when the animal was captured.

"We talked to the Atlantis people at the beginning and the agreement was that the shark would be tagged and released," he said. "The difference was about when she should be released; we wanted it to be immediately. This is when the communications stopped." According to the statement from the Atlantis, the whale shark was fitted with a tracking device that in about three months will automatically free itself, float to the surface and transmit information via satellite.

If all goes well, data from the Mk10-PAT "pop-up archival transmitting tag", will allow shark researchers to reconstruct the animal's tracks and the depths and water temperatures in which it has been swimming. All whale shark enthusiasts around the world, said Mr al Zu'bi, would be watching for the data and he urged Atlantis to make sure it was made available on a website. "I love whale sharks," he said. "I am so glad she is out and safe. The whole marine community is happy and I am sure plenty of people in Atlantis feel the same.

"Hopefully, in three months we will have some good news that she is on the migration schedule. In October, I am going to Djibouti to spot whale sharks; I hope I can meet her there." Surprisingly little is known about the world's largest fish, a gentle giant that can grow up to 40ft in length yet is harmless to humans - though not to plankton or krill, which it hoovers up through a mouth that can grow up to four feet across. Estimates of its lifespan range from 70 to 150 years.

While there were apparently no independent witnesses to the Atlantis whale shark's tagging and release, Dr Robert Hueter, the lead shark researcher from the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, had advised and trained Atlantis staff in the fitting of tracking devices. The National has learnt, however, that no one from the organisation was present during last week's release. "Dr Hueter has told me he can't comment on its condition when it was released, simply because he wasn't present during the release," said Hayley Rutger, a spokesman for the laboratory, whose shark researchers will analyse any data received from the tracking device.

"Atlantis staff informed him that the shark was healthy, heavy and had grown 0.6 metres in length in the 18 months it was housed at Atlantis. Dr Hueter said this growth rate was similar to the rate for wild sharks, indicating that it was in good condition." On Thursday, a week after the whale shark's release, the Atlantis issued a statement. It included an account of how the animal had come into its possession on August 28, 2008, and a description of its condition.

"Found in the shallows, the whale shark was clearly under duress when it was sighted by a local fisherman - The temperature of the water was approximately 37C to 42C with salinities of 47ppt to 52ppt. The temperature and salinity would put incredible stress on almost all fish species." Although the animals were seen during all months of the year in the Arabian Gulf, "off Dubai, whale sharks normally occur from January to June with a peak March-May. A whale shark in August is not typical."

The animal was found to be "very thin - her body mass was well below average. On arrival, some of her fins were observed to have been damaged, which we believe was caused by her struggles in the shallow water where she was found." The statement added that the animal's release had been documented by photography and video, but the Atlantis has so far failed to respond to requests to release images or footage.

It remains to be seen whether the statement will appease Kerzner's critics. @Email:jgornall@thenational.ae

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