Imagine having dinner with stingrays and schools of brightly coloured fish swimming above your head: The National Aquarium Abu Dhabi put together an underwater iftar as a grand welcome to its newest residents, two African Manatees.

The 'extremely rare' African Manatees are joining the aquarium's more than 46,000 marine and terrestrial animals — marking the first time they are seen in the region.

From the first day of Eid Al Fitr, the general public will be able to witness the captivating beauty of the Manatees and learn about the species from on-site experts.

Only a select few facilities around the world are allowed to host the African Manatees, said Paul Hamilton, general manager of the National Aquarium.

“What you are seeing here is a rare sight. The two male manatees were transferred from an aquarium in Seoul,” Hamilton said as the sea mammals — categorised as vulnerable species — were unveiled for the first time after the iftar.

The unique iftar was held in the region’s longest underwater tunnel offering a mesmerising view of the multiple species of fish and marine life. Among those present were several ambassadors, diplomats, and officials, especially from the African nations.

Know the Manatees

Both gentle giants were seen comfortably swimming across their new environment, often coming close to the glass wall and posing for the cameras.

Native to the warm inland and coastal waters of West and Central Africa, African Manatees — also known as sea cows in general — are gentle omnivores crucial to their ecosystems.

They are secretive aquatic mammals that live in nutrient-rich water bodies from Senegal to Angola.

Despite their ecological importance, these majestic creatures face significant threats, including habitat degradation, poaching, entrapment by dams, and bycatch in fisheries.

Inspiring conservation

The rare sea cows were brought into the country as part of the aquarium's African Manatee Project, which aims to promote public awareness and inspire conservation action.

The National Aquarium provides a sanctuary that closely mimics the manatees’ natural habitat in Africa — while offering visitors a unique opportunity to observe and learn about these magnificent creatures firsthand.

The duo were transferred from South Korea on a special flight accompanied by a team of specialists, who closely monitored the Manatees during the trip.

“Our commitment to following international standards guarantees that these magnificent creatures are thriving in an atmosphere that prioritizes their safety, happiness, and overall well-being,” Hamilton said.

Among the noble objectives of this initiative are conserving a species facing serious threats in their natural habitats; educating and raising awareness among the public about marine conservation issues; advancing research efforts aimed at studying the behaviour and ecology of African Manatees; and contributing to the African Aquatic Conservation Fund to support projects aimed at preserving manatees in West Africa.

Additionally, the aquarium will sell hand-made items crafted by African artisans — with a portion of proceeds donated to the Mohamed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund — to support the conservation of the species in their natural environment.

Collaborative effort

Nicolas Heard, acting director general of the Mohamed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, lauded the collaborative efforts initiated by the National Aquarium.

“This collaboration enables crucial financial support from Abu Dhabi for the conservation of the special and highly threatened West African manatee in its natural habitat. Through this partnership, we aim to fund conservation projects and build local capacity to ensure the long-term protection of this unique species.”

Lucy Keith-Diagne, executive director of the African Aquatic Conservation Fund, who spent the past 37 years conducting field research with marine mammals, praised the efforts to protect marine life.

“This partnership reflects our steadfast commitment to biodiversity conservation and preservation of crucial marine environments. We consider the National Aquarium in Abu Dhabi a valuable partner in this joint effort, and look forward to achieving positive outcomes that benefit marine ecosystems and the communities involved in the region and beyond.”

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