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Penguins at Ski Dubai

Wrap up warm and meet the penguins at Ski Dubai this winter

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© ITP Images

Louise Emma Clarke wrapped up warm and took her son to meet the penguins at Ski Dubai…

I’ve been excited about Stanley being old enough to visit the penguins at Ski Dubai since he was born – and with the Christmas countdown on, I decided it was finally time to dig the thick socks and gloves out of the empty suitcase (the only things left unpacked from our Christmas trip to cooler climes last year) and head to Mall of the Emirates to meet them.

Being a big animal lover, I’m always concerned about the welfare of animals in captivity, but I was reassured to read that Ski Dubai regularly directs funds back into penguin conservation and research projects through the non-profit charity Hubbs SeaWorld Research Institute. I had visions of Stanley meeting and falling in love with the penguins, but also developing a life-long interest in their welfare and conservation. I liked that vision a lot, so had high hopes about what we had in store.

We arrived at Ski Dubai on a busy Saturday afternoon, but I was impressed by the ease of the check-in process. After being handed our pass cards, we were directed to the changing and locker area and given outfits to keep us warm. For Stanley, this was a thick all-in-one with hood, snow boots, and crash helmet (mandatory for children entering Ski Dubai) – and for me, a thick jacket, trousers, and boots.

After joining our group of 12 at the meeting point, we were led into the Snow Park. I was expecting it to be cold, but the temperature took my breath away. At a cool -5’C, I wasn’t the only one, and I could see other group members jiggling around to keep warm. Thankfully, Stanley looked snug as a bug in his all-in-one.

We made our way through a dark tunnel, complete with ice on the wall and snow under our feet. It felt very magical and festive – and I felt bubbles of excitement as I thought about where we were heading.

Arriving at an area with video screens, a short talk and film followed about the experience that would follow.

We were told that Ski Dubai is the only place in the world where the public are allowed to touch penguins and were given instructions on how to hug them (always from behind, to prevent a scratch from a sharp beak). Questions started to form in my mind about why nowhere else in the world offered the chance to touch the birds, as surely this was for very valid reasons? But glancing down at Stanley’s excited face, there was no turning back - and we followed our guide into the first holding pen.

Two small Gentoo Penguins were suddenly at our feet and I heard Stanley gasp in amazement. After a quick hello, we were led over to watch the penguins swimming underwater in their enclosure. The children pressed their faces against the windows as they watched, totally captivated as the creatures ducked and dived. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the only part of the experience that would involve seeing penguins being penguins – and it only lasted a few minutes before we were asked to sit down for a quick talk about the penguins at the trainer’s feet.

Each couple or family were then invited one-by-one to move to a photography area to sit down – and on cue, the two penguins ran over to pose either side for a photo. After our turn, we moved back to the seating area and waited for everyone else to have a turn. Stanley was cold and losing patience, asking me if he could go back to the window to watch the penguins swimming.

Once everyone had posed, we were led into the second enclosure to meet a King Penguin; the second largest breed of penguin in the world and pretty impressive with his bright yellow feathers. This was the bird we would be allowed to touch – and once again, we took it in turns to stand in front of the camera.

Stanley was excited to hug and kiss the penguin – and I have to be honest, it was amazing to get so close to such a majestic creature. But doubts niggled in my mind about whether the penguin was enjoying it, as he stood deadly still and endured all the attention – and more importantly, whether we should be doing it in the first place.

It was also becoming very obvious to me that the experience was all about photography. Even as Stanley lent down to touch the penguin, the photographer was shouting ‘Look at the camera! Look at the camera!’ Stanley was totally distracted and didn’t know whether to enjoy the experience or pose. What made it even more galling, was that we weren’t allowed to take our own photos, so the fact that it was a huge money-spinner for Ski Dubai was never far from my mind.

After everyone had posed, we were led out of the enclosure and found ourselves back in the locker area to get changed - and of course, view and buy our photos at Dhs100 a pop. I bought one photo as a souvenir for Stanley, but felt a bit cheated that we hadn’t seen the penguins play, feed, or interact with each other. The experience had essentially been one big photo opportunity.

After meeting my husband in a café alongside Ski Dubai, he told me that he’d watched the 4pm March of the Penguins parade through the Snow Park from the café window. The hourly event involves the penguins walking along together and sliding down banks, which those inside can watch for free. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish we had purchased general entry and watched this instead. Or perhaps stayed in the warm and watched from the café window for free.

Doubts continue to niggle, but I am reminded that Ski Dubai plough money into conservation – and I can’t deny that Stanley loved the experience. In fact, he is now quite enamored by these beautiful feathered creatures, so I will make it my mission to teach him about how they live in the wild to make the experience worthwhile.
Peng-Friend Encounter is suitable for children between 3 and 12 years of age, accompanied by an adult, and lasts 40 minutes. It costs Dhs150 per person. www.skidubaipenguins.com.

By Time Out staff
Time Out Dubai,

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