16 September 2005

Up close and personal with sharks in Malaysia

Nestled in the heart of Malaysia's bustling capital Kuala Lumpur, the Aquaria KLCC caused great excitement when it opened its doors in August to unveil five menacing sand tiger sharks from South Africa in an underwater walkway measuring 90m in length.

The rare sharks and the giant turtle are without doubt the aquarium's main attraction - apart from more than 3 000 sea creatures and a hidden shipwreck.

"I've never seen such a big turtle before," said five-year-old Kimberly Koo in wide-eyed amazement.

"It looks a lot smaller in Finding Nemo," she said in reference to the popular animated movie.

Young and old are clearly awed as they fall into a hushed silence at the sight of the majestic sharks and giant stingrays that sweep all around them on entering the fibre glass tunnel.

"You never get tired of seeing the look of excitement in the children's faces," said head curator Paul Hamilton.

Hamilton said other interesting species among the 5 000 freshwater and marine animal exhibits in the aquarium include a giant catfish, a 150kg grouper fish and of course, more sharks.

"I'm a big fan of sharks. I wouldn't go to aquariums if I couldn't see sharks," he said.

"Every single person on this planet knows of a shark, they know what it can do, and now we have the opportunity to just put it in front of people."

But the massive predators are not without complications, said the 27-year-old New Zealander who has helped spearhead six other aquariums across the globe.

"There were times the sharks were predatory and ate the other inhabitants," he said, adding, "But this only lasted for two to three weeks. Now, the sharks have become totally dependent on divers for food. All our sharks are very well behaved now."

The aquarium, which cost more than a billion ringgit to set up, is situated in a convention centre connected to the city's famed Petronas Twin Towers. It is destined to become one of the country's landmark tourist attractions.

The aquarium has already recorded an impressive 10 000 daily visitors since its opening. The fully-interactive centre is projected to cater to 1,5-million annual visitors, officials said.

Currently, the admission fee for adults is 20 ringgit and 10 ringgit for children. Ticket prices were set to increase in late August, but organisers declined to say by how much.

Aside from the underwater tunnel, the Aquaria also has an impressive live-coral display, an exhibit highlighting exploration on the evolution of fish, and a display of marine life from the Amazon.

Hamilton said the aquarium plans to host different kinds of functions in future including guided tours, wedding receptions, sleep-overs and swimming-with-the-sharks programmes.

At present, 15 staff including five divers, have their hands full keeping the aquarium's pumps and chemical levels in check, running the maintenance of the entire area and ensuring that over-eager parents and their children refrain from traumatising the aquarium's inhabitants, he said.

Four scientists and a vet care for sick animals in the aquarium's two large "sick bays".

Aside from the myriad of different marine life, visitors are also exposed to displays that come with conservation messages.

"We put little messages here and there, and hope people come away from the aquarium with an appreciation for the living animal and its living environment," said Hamilton.

Expansion plans in the near future have already been drafted to include a large jelly-fish pool, a giant spider-crab tank and most notably, a sea turtle rehabilitation centre.

"Rather than go and take a sea turtle from the wild, I will adopt any sick turtle found," said Hamilton.

"The turtles come in, we rehabilitate them for about six months, they go into the aquarium for another six months, then we satellite tag them and send them off in the wild.

"This will raise awareness to the public on how fragile and how precious these creatures are."

Sara, a tourist from Yemen who was visiting the aquarium with her family, was in the large souvenir and gift shop full of octopus-shaped caps and furry shark toys. She took a pause from piling up on furry gifts to express her delight at how close she got to a live shark.

"It was so beautiful seeing what it's like living under the sea. Although its not a real environment, it's the closest we can ever get to an underwater experience," said the 18-year old.

Source: www.iol.co.za


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