Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Sammy the Whale Shark to be Set Free

After weeks as the star attraction at the Atlantis hotel in Dubai, Sammy the whale shark is finally being allowed to check out.

A 13ft whale shark that has spent weeks as the star attraction in a huge tank in the lobby of a luxury hotel is to be freed after a campaign that included protest songs and the setting up of a "Free Sammy" page on Facebook.

Since the £950 million Atlantis hotel opened in Dubai last month, visitors have been greeted by the sight of Sammy and tens of thousands of other fish swimming about in a giant aquarium.

The whale shark is a juvenile and a protected species. Environmentalists were appalled by the display and began a fight against the hotel’s state-owned developers to have Sammy removed.

The surprise order to liberate her from the hotel, on the giant, man-made Palm Jumeirah development, was issued by the Government of the United Arab Emirates this week.

Such battles between environmentalists and wealthy developers are common in the West but are new to Dubai, where any opposition to its trillion-dollar building boom is rare, and victory against influential, state-owned developers is more elusive still.

“The whale shark should be freed,” Rashid Ahmad bin Fahad, Minister of Environment and Water, told The Times. “There is no decision yet on the timing, but definitely it will be freed.”

The campaigners have demanded that the speckled grey whale shark — the world’s largest fish species — be returned to the sea. She was caught in the shallows off the Gulf coast in August.

Sammy’s plight has dominated local news headlines. Dubai’s main daily, The Gulf News, led a “Free Sammy” campaign, decrying the confinement of the whale shark as “cruel beyond belief”. Children donned “Free Sammy” badges, activists waved placards and supporters put bumper stickers on their cars.

DJs at Dubai 92, a local radio station, played their own Free Sammy song, to the tune of Michael Jackson’s Free the World: “Free the whale shark, Make it a better place, For all the small fish who are scared they might be eaten,” the remix ran. “There are frogs and dolphins who are scared they might be dinner.”

Dubai residents also launched a Facebook campaign, signed by more than 8,000 people.

Sammy was swimming in an open-air aquarium with 65,000 fish, stingrays and other sea creatures. Environmentalists, wildlife activists and scientists condemned its cramped living conditions as life-threatening for her.

The whale shark is harmless to people, feeding on plankton and small fish. In the wild it can live to 100 and roams across thousands of miles.

Environmentalists say that the owners of the Atlantis hotel have disregarded international permit laws, holding her illegally and using her as a ploy to attract tourists. The captivity of whale sharks in the United States and Japan has provoked controversy in the past.

The Atlantis — developed by Sol Kerzner, a South African property tycoon, and Nakheel, a government-owned developer — refused to comment on the row or the government order. However, previous statements have argued that the shark was “under duress” at the time of its capture and claimed that the hotel’s vets were nursing it back to health and studying it for scientific purposes.

The decision to release Sammy came as a surprise to even her staunchest supporters, highlighting how local sensibilities in the UAE are changing, in part because Dubai is attracting growing numbers of expats concerned about the environment.

With its chilled swimming pools, desert snow domes and man-made islands, the UAE has one of the world’s highest per capita carbon footprints. But the Government has embarked on several big green projects in an effort to shed that reputation, including Masdar, the world’s first carbon-neutral city being built in Abu Dhabi.

Azzedine Downes, of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said that the decision to free Sammy set an important precedent against excess at any cost. “It offers us a snapshot of a much bigger problem: the losing battle that wildlife faces.”

The Government’s decision comes before the resort’s gala opening next month, billed as the most expensive private party yet staged. Some suspect that the decision to free Sammy has been prompted by fears that the negative publicity could overshadow the festivities.

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