Rare Shark Makes Waves in Dubai

The Atlantis resort's captive whale shark, dubbed Sammy by news media, swims in a lobby aquarium also viewable from $7,500-a-night suites. Animal rights groups and scientists have condemned the confinement of the shark.
The Atlantis resort's captive whale shark, dubbed Sammy by news media, swims in a lobby aquarium also viewable from $7,500-a-night suites. Animal rights groups and scientists have condemned the confinement of the shark. (By Kamran Jebreili -- Associated Press)

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By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 24, 2008

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- One day this summer, a fisherman spotted a 14-foot shark off this high-rise Persian Gulf boomtown. The polka dots on the creature's back showed she was a whale shark, an internationally protected species.

The fisherman, according to local news reports and the United Arab Emirates' Environment Ministry, was working on consignment, charged by a new $1.5 billion, ocean-themed resort here with finding exotic fish for its aquariums and water park.

Today, the shark is the star attraction in a tank in the black marble lobby of the newly opened Atlantis, a project of a state-owned development company and a foreign developer best known for founding the Sun City resort in apartheid-era South Africa. Guests pay $7,500 a night to stay in Atlantis's Poseidon and Neptune suites, where a glass wall affords a private view of the whale shark and the smaller fish in her tank. Diners in a seafood restaurant run by a Michelin three-star chef enjoy the same view.

Developers are generally the unchallenged heroes of Dubai's $1 trillion-plus building boom. There was no outcry last year, for example, when authorities deported hundreds of predominantly South Asian construction workers -- legally entitled to neither a minimum wage nor the right to strike -- for staging a protest for better pay.

But the fate of the freckled gray shark has caught public attention, suggesting that even Dubai's culture of developer-driven excess has its limits.

An Emirates-based newspaper, the Gulf News, is waging a Free Sammy the Shark campaign -- editors said they named the shark before the hotel disclosed it was female. The newspaper runs photos of residents wearing badges showing Sammy and calling for her release.

A Gulf News countdown keeps track of the shark's days behind glass, which numbered 47 as of Thursday.

Emirates residents started a Facebook campaign that has attracted more than 8,000 members. "This poor whale shark was caught off the shores of Dubai and needs to be put back where it belongs before she dies!!!" its mission statement declares.

Animal advocacy organizations, marine science associations and hotel industry publications have condemned Sammy's confinement. Other whale sharks in captivity include specimens at aquariums in Japan and in Atlanta.

"There's not a true scientific reason to keep the whale shark in a tank. It's clear that they brought it as an attraction," said Azzedine Downes, the Dubai-based vice president of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "To remove a female from the population just further endangers the species."

Spokeswomen in the United States and Dubai for the hotel's lead owner, South African Sol Kerzner, did not return repeated calls for comment.

Kerzner has withstood tougher protests. His Sun City resort in South Africa inspired the Steve Van Zandt song that includes the refrain "I ain't gonna play Sun City" and became a symbol of international protests against South Africa's then-segregated government. The boycott lasted until apartheid ended in 1994; Sun City remains.


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