The Poseidon adventure: behind the scenes at Atlantis’s aquaria

Manta ray Poseidon

The gigantic Atlantis mega-resort in the Bahamas is not somewhere I’d normally choose to stay, but when I found myself there for a recent tourism conference, I was pleasantly surprised to learn how much conservation work is done by its team of marine experts.

Giant aquariums filled with fish, coral and sea mammals form an integral part of the resort, which is themed on the legend of the sunken city of Atlantis. I’m not sure I can agree with dolphins and sea-lions being kept in tanks for guests to cuddle – even if they did come to Atlantis as injured, rescued animals – but when I took a behind-the-scenes tour of the on-site fish hospital and rehabilitation centre, the resort did go up in my estimation.

Senior aquarist Elgin Hepburn explained how Atlantis has been breeding green turtles since 2005, releasing the hatchlings into the wild with the help of the local community. “We’ve heard reports of lots of young green turtles being seen in the area, which we hope is down to us,” he said. The team hopes to begin a hawksbill turtle breeding programme this year too.

Atlantis is also helping to restore diminished mangroves – vital to prevent coastal erosion – in the Bahamas by growing seedlings to be planted on New Providence and elsewhere.

The day after my visit, one of the two majestic manta rays was to be released back into the wild, wearing an electronic tag which will feed-back vital data to scientists trying to learn more about this little-understood species, to help in its conservation.

Atlantis keeps each manta ray for only two or three years, which means no impact on its behaviour. I was sorry not to see the release for myself, but the photos on Bahamas Weekly of Poseidon being helicoptered back to freedom are pretty incredible.

I was interested to learn that jellyfish are the hardest species to look after, since their delicate bodies mean even the tiniest bit of debris on the walls of their tank can rip them apart. I also had a fascinating peak in the feeding room, where a gigantic “menu” lists what each fish or mammal needs to be fed each day. Elgin explained that all the fish are fasted on one day of the week, to ensure they maintain their natural hunting instincts.

Hawksbill turtle at AtlantisWhen I asked Elgin about the ethics of keeping creatures as large as a manta ray or sea-lion in a tank – no matter how big the tank – he admitted it’s a divisive topic. “But we want people to come to an appreciation and love for the animals, and for some people the only way they are going to see them is in an aquarium,” he argued. “When they get that ‘wow’ from seeing a manta or a dolphin up close, we hope they’ll then want to protect them and their habitats in the wild.”

There is a striking lack of information-boards as you walk through the marine exhibits, so I wonder how many guests do actually engage with ecological issues on their visit. But guided tours do give an overview and an online ‘education centre’ has excellent resources for kids and teachers, with huge numbers of school groups coming for educational tours.

I’d like to see a more overt effort to get across the conservation message to visitors, and it’s a shame the conservation efforts of the marine team are not matched on the hotel side (I saw no evidence of recycling, and the housekeeping team persisted in leaving the lights and air-con on in my room while I was out). But having spent a enlightening morning learning what Atlantis has achieved in marine research and education, I do have a little newfound respect for it. Just a little.

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