DUBAI // A juvenile whale shark caught in August last year has now spent more than 12 months in a Dubai hotel aquarium, triggering renewed calls for its release. The world's largest living species of fish, whale sharks are listed as vulnerable to extinction in the Red List of Threatened Species, a publication of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. It is a free-roaming ocean fish, travelling vast distances each year and known to dive to depths as great as 1,000 metres.
The animal was caught on August 27 last year in what the Atlantis hotel and resort described as a rescue - a move that was heavily criticised by conservationists asking how an aquarium could accommodate the whale shark's needs. It was even given a name - Sammy. However, the controversy died down after a few months and the whale shark has continued living at the Ambassador Lagoon, an 11-million-litre fish tank at the resort where it pulls in large crowds of tourists and UAE residents alike.
Nevertheless, wildlife experts still insist that the animal, which measured four metres at the time of the capture, would be better off at sea where she could enjoy a longer life and reproduce. Many argue that a day close to the first anniversary of her capture would be an ideal time for release. "Whale sharks do not survive in captivity; even in the very best aquaria they die, as it is difficult to replicate the diet and environment that a pelagic [open sea] filter-feeding shark requires," said Dr David Rowat, the chairman of the Marine Conservation Society in the Seychelles.
A study of 16 whale sharks kept at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium in Japan, one of the few facilities where the rare fish are exhibited, showed their average life expectancy was less than two years. In the wild, whale sharks are known to grow to up to 20 metres during a life that can last 60 years. "If the animal is healthy it should have no problem surviving in the wild," said Dr Rowat, who has spent years studying whale sharks.
"I have recently put satellite tags on two sharks that were captured off China and kept in captivity in sea-pens for a year; both are apparently doing fine some 10 weeks after release, according to the satellite transmissions." The Dubai whale shark's future, however, remains obscure. Despite repeated attempts by The National over the past seven days, officials at Atlantis, The Palm, could not be reached for comment. While it remains uncertain that the captive will ever be freed, Dr Rowat said there were factors that favoured it happening around the anniversary of its capture.
"The release should be during the season when whale sharks frequent the area. As this is a year later, it is likely that this is the season when the sharks are found here and so is the optimal time." Another group that has been campaigning for the shark's release is the Emirates Wildlife Society in association with the World Wide Fund for Nature (EWS-WWF), which sent an open letter to Atlantis decision-makers in February this year.
"The Atlantis confirmed during an interview with the Business Breakfast on September 24 2008 that they would release the whale shark in due course, but has not yet acted upon its promise," said Lisa Perry, the programme manager at EWS-WWF. "We will keep urging the Atlantis to reconsider their rationale for keeping the whale shark and release it back into its natural habitat as soon as possible. Keeping the whale shark at a hotel, which is not an educational or scientific institution, does not increase the potential for conservation of the wild population."
Jonathan Ali Khan, a filmmaker who is preparing a documentary on Arabia's shark populations, listed additional reasons in favour of release. "Releasing her from a tank such as Atlantis is nothing but a good thing. Animals such as whale sharks and sharks in general are genetically imprinted with amazing instincts that have enabled them to survive for over 400 million years," said Mr Khan, who is the founder and director of the Dubai-based Ocean World Production. "It wouldn't take long for her to revert to her normal patterns and behaviour.
"She may need a deworming treatment before being released as it is not sure what she might have picked up while in the tank. Certainly her tail fin has deteriorated since [it was] injured during her capture. The biggest problem she is facing now is from the overcrowding in the tank. The number of fish that have sustained collision or bite injuries is noticeable." Apart from welfare considerations, the animal should be released as it would eventually be capable of reproducing, added Mr Khan, who is currently organising the UAE's first whale shark conference and workshop in December.
"Each pregnancy can result in her pupping over 300 babies at a time. We don't know how many times females bear young, but we do know that each time she does makes the whole species a little more secure from becoming extinct. "There are far too many unanswered questions to risk the fate of a young female endangered animal by keeping her in captivity without any specific scientific basis of research. Questions such as where are the breeding grounds? Are our waters a principle nursery for the entire Indian Ocean population?
"For that purpose alone, Sammy needs to be released immediately," said Mr Khan. "And to make it all worthwhile, Atlantis should release her with a satellite tag and fund the basis of a research project". While the hotel management would not comment, many visitors to the aquarium seemed unaware of the whale shark's plight. "This aquarium is really nice and it has a lot of variety. I like it more than the one at the Dubai Mall. I like the sting rays and the sharks," said Kirti, 25, a resident of Ajman.
But Rasourl, a businessman from Iran, said: "This aquarium is too small for the whale shark." firstname.lastname@example.org