His beady eye is trained on me suspiciously, his beak tense, his yellow chest proudly puffed up. Slowly I edge my hand towards a flipper – I’m certain the flipper makes a small movement towards my hand. I grab the foreign, leathery thing empathetically; I’ve just become one of a minority of people in the world who can claim to have shaken hands with a penguin.
Looking up from my triumph, I watch as a dozen other penguins waddle, frolic and make friends on the powdery snow beneath my feet. Only this isn’t natural snow. In fact, we couldn’t be farther from the penguins’ native South Pole – I’m actually in Ski Dubai at Mall of the Emirates. If it wasn’t fantastical enough to host an artificial ski slope inside an air-conditioned shopping mall in the middle of the desert, someone decided they needed to take it one step further. That step was flying in 20 perky little penguins to make the mall their permanent home, to be introduced to the Dubai public during the first days of February. Time Out was lucky enough to get an exclusive first meeting with the new arrivals in mid-January, so I suspect I won’t be in the hand-shaking minority for much longer.
The loveable arctic animals arrived in Dubai in the first week of January from SeaWorld in Texas, where they were born and raised in captivity. They’re sure to be a hit, in part thanks to their species’ starring role in flicks such as Happy Feet and March of the Penguins. But why do they hold such a fascination for young and old alike? ‘It’s because they’re birds that can’t fly,’ ventures Ski Dubai operations manager Tom Scheffer, 39, as he reaches down to stroke a particularly cute specimen. ‘Just look at them,’ laughs the Dutchman. ‘They’re amazing!’
Visitors can get to know Dubai’s newest residents in two ways. There will be a ‘march of the penguins’ event three to four times a day, when the friendly flappers will wander around a secluded patch of snow (far out of the way of skiers and snowboarders) and mingle with guests. The event will be free of charge to anyone already visiting the Snow Park, and will be visible to shoppers on the other side of the glass. For a more intimate experience, visitors can buy a face-to-face encounter with the birds. Dhs175 buys a 15-minute touchy-feely session in a group of 10 people, while the Dhs500 VIP option sees the group size shrink to four, with free hot chocolate and souvenirs.
‘You can see penguins anywhere in the world, but normally they’re behind glass,’ says Ski Dubai marketing manager Omar El-Banna, 35, who hails from Egypt. ‘They’re naturally very friendly creatures, and when you encounter them face to face you forge an emotional link between yourself and the bird.’
Dubaians will be relieved to hear that the friendly flippers aren’t just in town for entertainment; there’s a very real hope each of the young birds (all but two are less than 24 months into an average 25- to 30-year life span) will mate and bring new lives into the centre. There are two species housed in Ski Dubai – the large, magisterial kings, and the smaller, perky gentoos – and each breed is split into equal groups, with five of each gender to create the maximum chance of some Antarctic romance. ‘We hope the birds will feel the love and start mating,’ says Tom. ‘We’ve seen a few blossoming romances already; there are two gentoos who are already winking and smiling at each other.’
Time Out’s initial concerns were for the penguins’ wellbeing, but there’s no doubt these birds receive exemplary care. There’s a team of 14 staff catering for the needs of the 20 birds, and Ski Dubai claims it well exceeds guidelines laid down by the international Penguin Taxon Advisory Group, which monitors penguin populations. The -6° climate is carefully maintained by pumping in 10 tonnes of artificially made snow three times a week. ‘The climate is ideal for them,’ explains Osama. ‘They’re from Antarctica; what is there but ice and snow? What do we have here? Ice and snow.’ But the birds have to earn their keep; it’s an eight-hour working day, with guests welcomed between 1pm and 9pm daily, and noon to 9pm at weekends. Yet they receive plenty of rewards for their work. ‘We feed them restaurant-quality fish,’ adds Tom.
‘The penguins are weighed and groomed daily, they each have a personal butler; they recieve a five-star service.’
After spending just an hour with the birds, it’s possible to start detecting their individual character quirks. ‘Blue Wing’ likes to climb on the ledge and gaze into the mall, ‘Squeaky’ is defined by her high-pitched call, ‘McFatty’ is named after his huge appetite for fish, and ‘Pumpkin’ is just plain cute.
Yes, this may be a clever ploy to keep punters interested in Ski Dubai six years after its opening. But we defy anyone to look into the eyes of one of these comical, waddling, non-flying birds and not feel a pang of warmth inside.
Ongoing penguin encounters are set to launch at Ski Dubai between February 1 and 5. Mall of the Emirates, www.skidxb.com (800 534 7873).
P-P-P-P-Pick up a penguin fact
• 13 of the 18 penguin species in the world are reported to have declining populations, blamed on warming waters, less sea-ice cover, dwindling food resources and an increase in predators such as whales and seals.
• Penguins’ eyes work better under water than on land, and that helps them to hunt.
• All penguins live south of the equator, but their climate stretches from Antarctica to the tropical Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador, almost astride the equator.
• Millions of years ago, penguins were able to fly. Now their flippers make them the fastest swimmers and deepest divers of any birds.
• The birds’ trademark white-front, black-back plumage is called counter-shading, providing camouflage from both above and below when the penguins are in the water.
• Penguins are carnivores that eat mainly fish. The penguins in Ski Dubai are fed almost entirely with capelin, plus the occasional heron as a treat.
To see more pictures of our new feathered friends, click here.