I've always loved animals. As a young child at school, I'd wait patiently until it was my turn to take home the class hamster for a week. It was a glorious time.
And when the day finally came – much to the displeasure of my folks, who had the not-so-lovely task of cleaning out the cage – I was, well, a little underwhelmed.
As it turns out, hamsters aren't that exciting. When it wasn't sleeping and eating (which was pretty much all day, every day), I'd sneak it out of its cage, only for it to shake nervously and pee on my hand. Not exactly The Wild Thornberrys adventure I had in mind (the ’90s generation will know).
So that was the end of my relationship with small, furry creatures – for a few years anyway; I also had a golden Labrador named Troy, but that's a touchy subject.
You might be wondering why I'm regaling you with tales of my youth and failed pet relationships. Stick with me, I do have a point.
Despite my disappointing experiences with various animals, I have never given up on them. So when the chance came along to get up close and personal with some as part of Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo's new animal encounters experience, I had visions of myself as a sort of Doctor Dolittle (minus the ability to talk to wildlife).
The experience gives guests the chance to pet otters, feed stingrays and observe the crocodiles being fed by pros from within their enclosure. Guests can sign up for just one encounter or all three. I decide to give them all a go. In for a penny, and all that.
I start the day with the crocodiles. I'm told the animals are on a strict feeding schedule and need to be fed on time, which I don't question. It's never wise to upset a crocodile, just look at what happened to Captain Hook.
Things start off pretty excitingly. I'm strapped into a harness and attached to a wire before climbing up a steep staircase into the crocodiles' lair – well above the water on a balcony, just in case anyone decides to go all Crocodile Dundee and jump over the barrier. There we see King Croc, one of the world’s largest reptiles, and his female companion of 20 years. King Croc is more than five metres long and weighs in at an imposing 750kg, equivalent to the weight of more than 15 fully grown men. To see an animal of his size up close is remarkable. Sadly, though, just like the class hamster, he doesn't do much. I don't know what I was expecting (some growling maybe, more teeth), but the experience is really more for the observant, patient type. A birdwatcher, perhaps. I watch as staff feed him a large piece of chicken – his diet is closely monitored and consists of around 12 pounds of chicken, beef or fish a day – by lowering it above him on a fishing rod-like pole. He eyes it up for a bit, then leaps from the water, huge mouth open, and gobbles it whole. This is probably the most exciting part of the hour-long encounter, if I'm honest.
Next up are the stingrays, and feeding them allows me to get into the Aquarium's tank. Standing on a platform with the water just up to my knees, I'm given a tub of small fish and told to hold each one low in the water so that the rays can swim up and eat them. This part is quite fun; they just suck the fish straight from my hand – it sort of feels a bit like a hoover. But it isn't as scary as you'd imagine. The rays have had their barbs (the part that stings you) cut, so I feel safe throughout.
The experience lasts around 40 minutes, but with only about ten minutes or so in the water. Throughout each of the encounters, staff detail facts about the animals, which are all quite interesting – did you know that crocodiles can go up to a year without eating?
I finish the day with a furry creature – an otter named Diego. I had hoped that I'd get to play with him, having seen pictures from the Aquarium with him reaching his little hand out to guests, but as it turns out, I just get to pet him while staff observe.
Overall, the day is fun, but I'm still not convinced that small furry animals are anything other than just cute. Perhaps I'll try horse whispering next time.
Dhs200 per person, per encounter. Daily 11am-10pm. Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo, The Dubai Mall, Downtown Dubai, www.thedubaiaquarium.com (04 448 5200).
Four to try Animal encounters
Play with penguins
Get up close and personal with penguins for 40 minutes at Ski Dubai. The experience allows guests to view them underwater and includes photos of the encounter.
Dhs175 per person. Daily noon-9pm. Ski Dubai, Mall of the Emirates, Al Barsha, www.skidubaipenguins.com.
Learn the history of the camel, taste its milk, then climb onto its back and watch the sun rise or set while it ferries you through the desert.
Dhs200 per person (total experience lasts 90 minutes). Daily 6am, 8am, 10am, 3pm. Al Sahra Equestrian Centre, Al Ain Road, www.jaresortshotels.com.
Swim with dolphins
Dolphin experiences are suitable for all ages and swimming abilities at Atlantis The Palm. Interactions range from standing in shallow water to scuba diving alongside them.
From Dhs695 per person. Dates and times vary. Dolphin Bay, Atlantis The Palm, Palm Jumeirah, www.atlantisthepalm.com
View exotic birds
Watch more than 20 colourful species flutter above your head at Dubai Dolphinarium's exotic bird show in Creek Park – the only one of its kind in the UAE.
Dhs50 (adults), Dhs30 (kids). Thu-Sat, 12.15pm, 4.15pm, 7.15pm. Creek Park, Oud Metha, www.dubaidolphinarium.ae.