x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Collecting a few fish tales during a stint at Atlantis

I was offered a place at Lost Chambers' marine biology mentor programme for teenagers - a fortnight serving wholesome meals to everything from piranhas to leopard rays.

I read the email thrice to make sure I had it memorised. It was from Mr Robert Bennett, the manager of Large Exhibits at Lost Chambers, Atlantis hotel. I'd just been offered a place at Lost Chambers' marine biology mentor programme for teenagers - a fortnight exploring a five-star hotel. People waiting upon you night and day, whipping off covers to reveal silver platters with exotic foods, enjoying glittering beaches among a sea of perfectly tanned tourists.

Well, it didn't quite turn out that way - given that I was doing work experience there, not enjoying a free holiday. I did want to make sure that I was ready in every way possible for the experience, though, and dutifully paid special attention to one of the points in the information briefs Rob sent me: "to be neatly groomed."

As any self-respecting specimen of the pampered Dubai teen set knows, the occasional manicure and pedicure treat at the salon is but the most basic part of being turned out neatly.

And so I pompously walked into Lost Chambers at 7am on the first day, resplendent in the regulation white polo shirt and khaki shorts, uber-cool hat that said "Atlantis", a dash of make-up (which melted as soon as we went outside) and immaculately filed and painted nails.

Lost Chambers is the hotel's aquarium, named after the sunken ruins from the myth of Atlantis, the once-magnificent island city (now having miraculously risen to the surface in Palm Jumeirah, conveniently complete with a hotel next to it).

What I was expecting was a fortnight walking around drinking in all the sights of the magnificent hotel, playing with fish and throwing them food, and pretty much living it up. What I got was all that, yes, but also insight into how the job of an aquarist isn't all fun and games.

I was unsure about the first morning: feeding cow-nose rays at Shark Tank, the pool of water around the Leap of Faith in Aquaventure water park. They wanted me to stand waist-deep in water that would have started forming icebergs if it was any colder. After much coaxing, I took a tentative step into the water. There went my pedicure. I stopped. I could feel the saltwater chipping away the varnish. And ... it actually felt delicious.

Holding out some juicy prawns was all it took before about 20 stingrays had swarmed around me, clamouring for food. It felt better than any spa treatment: every ray harmless, rushing up, gliding around excitedly, friendly as dolphins. They did go away after realising the food was gone, leaving only the warm thought that what they really wanted to do was play.

While I loved ray feeding, I was rather more apprehensive of kitchen work. Dishwashing liquid and I have never shared the best of relationships, and there was copious amounts of bucket-washing and transferring pongy squid and krill from one container to another to be done: food for the pampered aquatic residents of the hotel. Farewell, faultlessly scarlet nails. (I did have a wonderful time splashing about, taking my time making soap suds explosions.)

In the time I started work experience here, if I've learnt anything it's that aquarists need to have extremely versatile personalities. They are required to act as chefs, strongmen, divers, vets in the quarantine hospital, and chemists, as they culture Artemia solution, a food for small animals such as clownfish (like the central character in 2003's Finding Nemo).

What seems like simply a well-functioning attraction needs constant, careful attention. I escaped a lot of the work - couldn't lift the boxes, and the time I was trusted to run down with nets carrying red snappers from an exhibit into a mobile tank, I almost killed them.

Still, I enjoyed serving wholesome meals to everything from piranhas to leopard rays, which made impressive Facebook statuses. Of course, I didn't bother mentioning that the shark I hand-fed was young and belonged to a docile species.

I sat behind a cashier's desk; went snorkelling; took "behind-the-scenes" and "myth of Atlantis" tours; and got the lovely staff to take pictures of me sitting in an Atlantean telephone booth while making fishy faces - which they did without complaint.

Everyone thanked me beautifully for "my help", which consisted of standing around getting in the way and making people stretch out a job they'd have finished in half the time if they hadn't been explaining to me what they were doing.

Am I glad I did the mentor programme? Definitely: there's nothing like coming home and having everyone wrinkle their noses at you while you go about in blissful oblivion because you're immune to the smell of dead fish.

The writer is a 16-year-old student in Dubai