By Hugh Tomlinson

Visitors to the Dubai Aquarium can pay to swim in its shark-infested waters, but shoppers in the Gulf state almost had the chance for free when the attraction sprang a leak.

Dubai Aquarium
Dubai Aquarium

A crack developed in the vast glass tank, which houses 33,000 fish including 400 sharks and stingrays swimming in 10 million litres of water. The aquarium is one of the world’s largest and the centrepiece attraction at the Dubai Mall.

“The crack was pretty big. They stopped the water getting out quickly but a lot of the nearby shops on the ground floor got water damage. I don’t think any of the fish got out. We didn’t have sharks in the mall, luckily,” said an assistant in one of the nearby shops.

The incident is the latest mishap to befall one of Dubai’s flagship projects. Earlier this month, the observation deck of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, was closed to the public when a lift broke in the 828m tower. Visitors were left stranded in the lift shaft for 45 minutes before begin rescued.

About 100 shops in the mall adjacent to the aquarium were evacuated as emergency services and a maintenance team moved to stem the crack in the 75-centimetre-thick glass. The full extent of the damage is still not known.

In a statement, the mall stressed that its maintenance team had immediately fixed a leak in one of the tank’s panel joints. The area around the aquarium remained closed yesterday afternoon, with security guards claiming that routine maintenance was going on.

“The leakage did not impact the aquarium environment or the safety of the aquatic animals,” said a spokesman for the mall. “The Dubai Aquarium works with international experts in aquarium management and upholds the highest safety standards.”

The aquarium has been a huge draw with locals and tourists since the Dubai Mall opened last year. The attraction boasts the world’s largest acrylic viewing panel at 272 square metres. Visitors can even pay to scuba dive in the tank.

The Dubai Mall and Burj Khalifa are both managed by Emaar Properties and form the core of a $20 billion (£13 billion) development to establish a new modern centre for the Gulf state.

Dubai’s once-booming real estate market collapsed last year with up to 50 per cent wiped off property values in the last 12 months. The city is also mired in a deep financial crisis. Dubai World, a major state-owned conglomerate, rocked international markets in November when it admitted it would be unable to repay $26 billion of debts.

Despite these difficulties, Emaar is pressing ahead with development of the Burj Khalifa. A luxury hotel and apartments designed by Italian fashion giant Giorgio Armani is scheduled to open in March. The new owners of the building’s exclusive residences will continue moving in throughout this year.