Aquatic veterinarians and divers can now find work in Jerusalem, for the first time in the thousands of years of the city’s history. In a few weeks the first aquarium in Israel will open to the public in Jerusalem, the first land-based aquarium in the Middle East, in the Biblical Zoo in the capital.
The construction of the aquarium, officially named “Sea Israel: The Gottesman Aquarium,” in the Jerusalem hills, was a major scientific and engineering challenge, says Dr. Liz Kaufman, the chief veterinarian of the aquarium. “In the zoo, all the animals breathe air, maybe we need to cool them off or warm them, or move them, but you don’t need to manufacture the air. For sea animals, you need to create the water and this seems to be 100,000 times more difficult than mammals and birds,” says Kaufman, the first aquatic veterinarian in Jerusalem – and who also happens to be a Haredi woman.
The idea for the aquarium, which planners hope to be one of the leading tourist attractions in Israel, grew out of the national plan for preserving biological diversity in Israel. The plan included establishing a national aquarium focusing on preserving the environment of marine habitats, along with public education for protecting the marine environment. The establishment of a land-based aquarium, which does not use sea water, as does the Underwater Observatory Marine Park in Eilat, is unprecedented in Israel and required bringing in foreign experts from Europe and the United States.
The aquarium complex is laid out on 20 dunams (5 acres) of land in the Tisch Family Zoological Gardens, better known as the Biblical Zoo, at the southern end of Jerusalem. The aquarium is 7,000 square meters and has 33 tanks. The largest tank represents the Mediterranean Sea environment and holds 1.6 million liters of water. The Red Sea tank contains 400,000 liters of water.
Among the diverse fish and other animals that fill the aquarium are sharks, stingrays, seahorses, jellyfish, corals, crabs, sea urchins and of courses thousands of fish from dozens of species.
The various marine environments surrounding Israel are the focus of the exhibits, despite the temptation to import various exotic creatures from all over the world to attract visitors. Only one tank is devoted to ocean life. The zoo staff decided well in advance not to include marine mammals, so dolphins and whales will not be on display. Visitors will be able to walk through tunnels inside the tanks with the fish swimming around them, as in a number of similar aquariums around the world.
Most of the fish were brought to Jerusalem from Kenya, where they were caught by fishermen as part of an initiative to prevent overfishing and preserve the marine environment; as well as from aquariums in Holland in Portugal. The fish were airlifted in, transported in tanks or in bags with water and compressed air.
An important part of the new Jerusalem aquarium will be education for protecting the sea environment, For example, one of the tanks will be dedicated to the problem of overfishing and will feature fish we recognize from our dinner plates.
Other sections of the complex will teach how to behave in the sea and at the beach: “Whoever visits the aquarium must leave it with the knowledge that you don’t go to the sea with plastic bags. Even if you put them in the garbage can, in the end they will be blown away in the wind and join the huge floating plastic continent in the ocean,” says Shai Doron, the director of the Biblical Zoo. “We want a lot of things from the sea, desalination, food, leisure, commerce and gas; but in order to get all these things we must protect the system,” he added.
Eating fish to save them
Doron’s dream is to open a fish restaurant there one day, which will be part of the educational process about protecting the sea. A similar restaurant was opened with great success at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.
Everyone who enters the restaurant will receive a menu in three colors: Green, orange and red, says Doron. Green is for the fish that can be eaten without worry, orange is for those fish that must be checked to ensure they come from sustainable sources, and red are fish that must not be eaten. It created a revolution in the consumption of fish in California, he said.
The aquarium cost about 100 million shekels ($28.5 million) to build. About half was donated by the Gottesman family from New York, and the city of Jerusalem and Tourism Ministry also participated in the funding.
The aquarium will operate separately from the rest of the zoo and at first it will only be open to visitors who sign up in advance.