Bringing the sea to Jerusalem might sound like a crazy idea, but this June, it will become a reality.
The Jerusalem Biblical Zoo is currently the city’s most visited paid attraction. In 2002, the zoo was given approval to expand its 26-hectare campus by an additional 14 hectares. At that time, the idea to build an aquarium on this additional land was proposed.
In 2008, the national biodiversity plan was approved by the government. The 600-page plan, written by university professors, ecologists and zoologists, addressed the issue of conserving Israel’s marine habitat.
“We are doing a little bit better in this area, but we have a long way to go,” Shai Doron, director of the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, says. “No one treats the sea as a habitat. We get so many services from it, such as recreation, tourism, shipment and commercial harbors, but no one treats it with care. One of the high priorities of the national biodiversity plan was to start to deal with the conservation of the sea.”
Israel has its share of issues when it comes to conservation in general, but the biodiversity plan suggested focusing on marine habitat. This renewed interest in the possibility of an aquarium that would focus on education, research and conservation ultimately gave birth to the building of the first aquarium in Israel, which began about three-and-a-half years ago.
Although there is an underwater observatory in Eilat and an aquarium attached to a shopping mall in Dubai, the Sea Israel: Gottesman Aquarium will be the only stand-alone aquarium in the Middle East.
Another unique factor of the new aquarium is that it will showcase only local marine habitats.
“The marine habitats around Israel are so rich and beautiful and yet unknown to most people who live here,” Doron adds. “We should display them and be proud of them because they are so important and interesting.
People don’t know it. Maybe down in Eilat people have some awareness of what is going on with the coral reefs and the fish, because there are divers; but for the most part, nobody knows what is going on in the sea. No one knows that there are mammals in the Mediterranean Sea. The aquarium is really going to leave people in awe of what is here.”
The idea that we can be astonished by what is right under our noses is certainly an important factor of the aquarium.
The new attraction is expected to draw local as well as global visitors. It is also creating a significant number of job opportunities – such as for divers, marine biologists, and cafe and gift-shop employees.
Opening an indoor facility that will attract tourists at night and in extreme weather when the zoo can’t is also noteworthy. There will be an option for a combined visit with the zoo, although Doron and his team are expecting that around 80% of visitors will have time to see only one or the other. Zoo members, of whom there are 52,000, will receive a discounted price on aquarium tickets, with the best value being the combined zoo/aquarium tickets that will be valid for a few days.
The aquarium is a NIS 100 million project. NIS 18m. came from the Jerusalem Municipality and the Tourism Ministry. The remaining NIS 82m. came from money raised both overseas and locally, as well as from the zoo’s endowment fund. The largest donation came from the David and Ruth Gottesman family of New York, a name that is already well known in Jerusalem, as they are involved in many other projects, such as the National Library and the bike path that runs from the First Station.
The biggest difference between a project like the library and building the aquarium is that it has never been done before in Israel, so there were many unknowns to confront.
“It was quite a challenging project because no one has built an aquarium here before, so we needed to hire consultants from Tulsa, Oklahoma,” Doron states.
“They are the consulting team that we used, and they are experts in zoological collection and life-support systems, which are the main issues of any aquarium that is inland.”
The aquarium’s architect was Lenny Raviv, who was also involved in building the zoo. This creates a synergy and continuity of design between the two sites.
The aquarium’s main building is 7,000 square meters, with almost 3,000 of that designated for the life-support systems that maintain the health of all of the fish on display. These systems produce the water quality that is necessary to sustain marine life in the tanks.
The aquarium will create its own salt water on the premises.
After filling the tanks, it will not continue to consume water, but instead will recycle it.
“We are part of a green initiative, so our buildings can’t be dominant and disturb the topography,” Doron explains. “We kept it low-key on the outside purposefully. We have a green roof, part of which will be a garden, and the other part will be a solar panel to create green energy for the needs of the aquarium. The front of the building is a mix of Jerusalem stone and rock coverings that are usually thrown away. So it’s very unique.”
The introductory exhibition is called the “Four Seas Gallery,” with one tank dedicated to each of Israel’s bodies of water: the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, Lake Kinneret and even the Dead Sea. Although the Dead Sea is not life-sustaining in and of itself, there are fish endemic to the pools in the surrounding area.
The introductory exhibition serves as a microcosm for the way the rest of the aquarium’s display tanks are structured, focusing on the marine life of one sea at a time. The first is the Mediterranean gallery.
“There is rich wildlife and fauna by the beaches of Tel Aviv, Herzliya, Netanya and Nahariya that people are not aware of,” Doron says. “This is why the exhibit starts at the seashore and then goes into the deep sea.”
Part of the Mediterranean exhibit includes a manta-ray tank, where visitors will be able to interact with and feed the manta rays.
In the same area, there are smaller tanks showcasing seahorses and stonefish, which camouflage themselves and would be impossible to detect in a larger tank.
Moving from shallow to deeper water, there is a tank dedicated to the subject of fishing and the problem of overfishing.
“It’s very important concerning awareness and education,” Doron adds. “We must avoid overfishing. We will look at issues such as what kind of fishing techniques are safer to use, not fishing during breeding season and which types of fish to avoid altogether.”
The last section of the Mediterranean exhibit includes tanks that display the deepest parts of the open sea. One of the aquarium’s main attractions is the shark tank tunnel: 400,000 gallons of salt water. The tank will also display sea turtles, tuna and schooling fish that typically reside at approximately 100 meters deep. The shark tank will also serve as a venue for special events after the aquarium is closed.
After the Mediterranean Sea exhibit, there is a corridor dedicated to the Suez Canal.
“To understand what happened between the Med Sea and the Red Sea, you have to know the story of the Suez Canal,” Doron explains.
The Red Sea gallery will welcome visitors with 600 clown fish. There are pop-in windows and see-through tunnels for children and adventurous adults to climb into and experience the feeling of immersion in the tank.
Coral replicas abound in every tank except for one, for which the aquarium, alongside the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, extracted a colony from the sea that was going to be destroyed. A rather unusual element of the Red Sea gallery will be the eight different tanks devoted to jellyfish.
“In order to understand the ecology and the food chain in the Red Sea, you must know about jellyfish,” Doron says. “There are a lot of accidents where sharks and sea turtles are eating plastic bags. So one of the tanks will be jellyfish and plastic bags together, to show how similar they look. Jellyfish are very ancient creatures, and they are so important. Israelis don’t realize that. They think that jellyfish are bad because they prevent people from swimming. There will be a big sign to educate about plastic bags in the ocean, because it is one of the main issues in conserving the marine habitat.”
Like any kosher aquarium worth its water weight, there will be a lobster tank toward the end of the Red Sea gallery, with information on kosher versus non-kosher sea life. The last tank will showcase big groupers.
According to Doron, the aquarium’s core is the back area that houses the storage tanks where all the fish and other creatures come before they are put on display. It’s also the area that serves as the conservation center for endangered species, research and study.
The heart of the aquarium is the lab, where chemists will test the quality of the tank water every morning and night.
“It’s a labor-intensive system that’s not very hi-tech,” Doron adds. “We have learned from other places that it’s better to do it by human beings. Chemists will be in charge of it because it’s important to give clean data to the marine biologists. This is the key element to ensure the quality of the water. It’s based on human beings, not computers. The computer systems have proved to be too sensitive, and in the end most aquariums have two systems, one computer and one human. We saved millions of shekels on that.”
The aquarium may not be hi-tech when it comes to testing the tank water, but it certainly is in terms of interactive visitor education.
There will be touch screens with special smartphone applications, displaying information on all the fish and other animals accompanying the exhibits.
There will also be general education signs, including one about marine mammals, since the aquarium is not large enough to have them.
Just before exiting, there will be one final, interactive educational display concerning what the visitors can do to be more environmentally- minded in the future, with tips such as: Don’t bring plastic bags to the beach. Don’t drive 4x4 vehicles on beaches where it will ruin nesting areas. Ensure that fish is purchased from sustainable sources. When diving near a coral reef, be careful not to break the coral.
Visitors will have the chance to pledge to be more mindful when it comes to marine habitat conservation. All aquarium signs will be in Hebrew, Arabic and English.
It remains to be seen how the aquarium will thrive, once its doors open to the public on June 19. But with ecological conservation and education occupying blind spots in the collective Israeli consciousness, the aquarium’s goal of raising awareness is a most necessary one. Combined with an appreciation of the wonders that lie just beneath the water’s surface, the aquarium has a part to play in securing the future of the land and the sea.