Behind the enormous tank that will eventually house sharks, sea turtles, stingrays and schools of tuna in the new Gottesman Family Israel Aquarium is a handwritten sign in Hebrew that reads: “There is a sea in Jerusalem.”

It’s a reminder of how unlikely this major endeavor was, recreating marine life in landlocked, hilly Jerusalem, as part of the Biblical Zoo complex, 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the Mediterranean Sea, and even farther from the Red Sea. Yet these two bodies of water are two of the habitats the aquarium will mimic in its 6,500 square-meter (nearly 70,000 square feet) facility.

In fact, it’s the first aquarium in Israel, and the first public, inland aquarium in the Middle East.

“It’s a challenge to bring this to Jerusalem,” said Shai Doron, CEO of Jerusalem’s Tisch Family Zoo, who guided a group of journalists through the new, as-yet unopened aquarium on Wednesday morning. “We had to do it all from scratch. We’re bringing the sea to Jerusalem.”

The new compound, built over the last six years, contains 30 tanks with thousands of fish and sea creatures living in half a million gallons of seawater, making it Jerusalem’s largest body of water.

Shai Doron, CEO of the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo and its latest addition, the Gottesman Family Israel Aquarium, outside the entrance to the 6,500 square-meter facility (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Shai Doron, CEO of the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo and its latest addition, the Israel Aquarium, outside the entrance to the 6,500 square-meter facility (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Preparing for this aquarium began nearly 10 years ago, a combination of the zoo receiving some five acres of additional grounds and a national plan to increase awareness of marine life.

On this hot day in July, just weeks before the aquarium opens with a soft launch to the public, most of the tanks have only a few fish in residence, with schools of large and small species trying out their new waters.

Many of the fish were adjusting to their new home in the aquarium’s quarantined area, where a staff of veterinarians and ecologists worked on regulating water temperatures and levels for their new inhabitants. The aquarium will also collaborate on marine research with local and international institutions, as guided by Avi Perevolotsky, the ecologist who chairs the aquarium’s board of directors.

The Israel Aquarium, like the Jerusalem zoo, concentrates on its natural niches, with a focus on the marine life of Israeli waters, including the Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea, aspects of the Dead Sea, and the Sea of Galilee, as well as honing in on the habitats of aquatic life in the region.

The aquarium's sea water and coral are artificial, but closely mimic the natural habitats of their resident fish (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The aquarium’s sea water is artificial, but closely mimics the natural habitats of their resident fish (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The tanks mimic the different sea systems in Israel, whether showing schools of fish in the shallow waters of the Dor Beach at the Mediterranean Sea, or St. Peter’s fish in the Sea of Galilee, swimming around their freshwater tank that includes the black basilica stone of the Tiberias region.

One enormous tank that will eventually house thousands of fish found in the Red Sea, imitating the scuba diving experience, is a quiet, dark space filled with cushions and seats, perfect for relaxing and concentrating on the movements of the fish.

In the Red Sea tanks, the multicolored coral is artificial, like the aquarium’s seawater, given that most of the local seawater is too polluted for the aquarium to use, said Doron.

The tanks are many and varied, offering close glimpses of marine life, such as these starfish (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The tanks are numerous and varied, offering close glimpses of marine life, such as these starfish (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

“You can’t take seawater from the sea of Tel Aviv,” he said. “It’s not good enough for our needs. You can’t take shortcuts with fish, we have to make them comfortable in their new environment.”

All of the aquarium’s life support systems use a water reclamation method that recycles exhibit water. Like the zoo’s sustainable systems, the aquarium makes use of environmental building methods, including a green roof covered with vegetation to absorb rainwater, provide insulation, and create a wildlife habitat. There is also a wetlands pond at the aquarium entrance that acts as a water filtration system for the facility.

Conservation and preservation of maritime life is heavily emphasized, as well as methods for protecting local sea life and learning about biodiversity.

Those are themes familiar from other aquariums around the globe, which served as inspiration for Doron and his staff. He mentioned several of his favorites, including the aquariums in Baltimore and Boston, as well as Lisbon, Spain and London.

“We’ll never be like Atlanta,” said Doron, referring to the Georgia Aquarium, one of the world’s largest, funded by a major contribution by Home Depot founder Bernie Marcus. “It’s like a shopping mall, there’s not enough water in the State of Israel to fill a three million gallon tank.”

His dream, however, is to be like California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium, a non-profit public aquarium located on the site of a former sardine cannery and with more than 600 species on display (and the inspiration for the aquarium in Pixar’s “Finding Dory”).

The Monterey Bay Aquarium. (CC BY, Jim G, Flickr)

The Monterey Bay Aquarium. (CC BY, Jim G, Flickr)

“This is the idea we’re working on, but we’ve got a long, long way to go,” said Doron, who worked with an American firm to conceive of the aquarium design and focus.

Sea mammals, for instance, such as whales, won’t ever have a home at the Jerusalem aquarium, because of the budget needed to house the enormous creatures, and the aquarium’s decision to focus on local marine life.

The Israel Aquarium is named for the Gottesman family, which donated half of the NIS 100 million ($28.5 million) venture. It’s seen as a boon to the local economy and Jerusalem tourism, said Doron, and is based on the country’s national biodiversity plan, which had long recommended a national aquarium, in order to help aquatic conservation and education in Israel.

Like at the zoo, where visitors, particularly the younger set, can enter cages through tunnels and peepholes, the new aquarium offers similar features (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Like the zoo, where visitors can enter cages through tunnels and peepholes, the new aquarium offers similar features for those who want a closer look (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Some 25 percent of the NIS 100 million investment was made by Israeli donors, including a NIS 1 million ($284,000) grant toward the aquarium’s educational programs from the Federman family, which owns the Dan Hotels chain. The Ministry of Tourism was another major donor, as well as the City of Jerusalem and the Jewish National Fund.

Given the success of the 24-year-old zoo, which is Israel’s most popular paid tourist attractions, drawing about 750,000 visitors each year, the site had been given land and needed an anchor project, said Doron.

The addition of the indoor, air-conditioned aquarium will help alleviate visitor pressure at the zoo during the hot summers and rainy winters, he said. It will also be open in the evenings, when the zoo is normally closed.

The aquarium will open some time in July, and will offer a 50% discount for the first period, with NIS 40 (around $11) tickets for both children and adults, and NIS 30 tickets (around $8.50) for the 54,000 active zoo members.

The coral in the Red Sea tanks is artificial, but closely imitates the features of the real thing (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The coral in the Red Sea tanks is artificial, but closely imitates the features of the real thing (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

In the future, tickets will cost NIS 90 (around $25.50) for adults and NIS 70 (around $20) for children, and the zoo will offer combination tickets for the zoo and aquarium that will be valid for a full week, given the average five-to-six-hour visit at the zoo, and the hour-and-a-half to two hours expected to be spent at the aquarium.

There will also be volunteering opportunities for landlubbers and divers with at least two stars, who want the chance to clean algae in the fish tanks for four hours a week.

“It’s the only place in Jerusalem where you can deep sea dive,” said Doron.