One second, my four-year-old son is inspecting an iguana, and the next he’s standing with 10 other open-mouthed and silent (yes, silent) sprogs staring at a slithering snake that’s wrapped itself around some poor man’s neck.
The poor man, it turns out, is lead aquarist, Damien Egan. And he’s not so ‘poor’ after all. In fact, Damien – a reptilian specialist – is in his environmental element.Proudly proclaiming a preference for pythons over people, he squats with the snake in front of an awestruck crowd in the new Creepy Crawlies exhibit at Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo.
The silence is sporadically punctuated with sharp intakes of breath from the unblinking boys, as they follow the rare Albino Burmese Python’s path around Damien’s body. And then the inquisition begins: ‘Is it slimy?’ ‘Does it bite?’ urge breathless voices as they are invited to touch. ‘It’s hard, dry and has humongous muscles,’ says one boy. ‘It’s longer than my bedroom!’ exclaims another.
The Burmese Python is just one of the creatures in the ‘interactive element’ of this exhibit, providing the public with personal encounters of the creepy kind. And while the nippers are keen to get close, the grown-ups keep their distance. ‘Young children are unfamiliar with the instinct of fear,’ Damien says, explaining that it’s an emotion probably learnt and acquired from adults.
He’s right. The thought of handling a snake sends shivers down my spine, and the photo opportunity (think holding said snake against a fake rainforest background) fills me with scepticism. But this is no circus show. ‘We’re not using them as props, but as a way of imparting knowledge about them, as well as clearing up some common misconceptions,’ Damien says, placing an Emperor Scorpion beside his face.
Deadly silence precedes a simultaneous intake of breath. ‘Will it kill you?’ enquires one bug-eyed boy. It’s certainly a spectacle, but there is an educational point: contrary to popular belief, this scorpion is completely harmless, as are quite a number of other creepies here – snakes and tarantulas included. In fact, visitors often misconstrue harmless creatures for dangerous ones, which is why showcasing these diverse reptiles and insects, supported by authentic insights about them and their natural habitats, is one of the aims of the exhibit.
Holding up my personal favourite, the Hercules Beetle, Damien imparts yet more fascinating facts to a rapidly expanding crowd. Having never considered a beetle anything more than a bother (and certainly not as a species harbouring hidden talents) I’m strangely delighted to discover that this seemingly insignificant insect is, in fact, the strongest creature in the world. Able to carry 800 times its own weight, Damien proudly tells us that this particular fellow actually pushed over a broom in the back room when he first arrived. Even the insect indifferent seem impressed at the Giant Stick Insect which ‘clicks’ as it clatters its legs together and the gecko-guzzling, mass-multiplying Hissing Cockroach which really does ‘hiss’ when touched. ‘I didn’t realise insects made noises,’ says one mum.
Not only are the staff all bug savvy, but the screens above each of the exhibits are awash with mind-boggling trivia. Among reams of ‘did you know?’ discoveries, find out why the Caiman Lizard uses its forked tongue to smell the air and how the Asian Giant Forest Scorpion can glow under UV light.
The beauty of this beastly exhibit is that you’ll learn every time you visit because the stars of the show change constantly. For parents, this makes the Dubai Aquarium’s Dhs250 annual membership a compelling commitment. ‘Apart from tarantulas, insects don’t live long – a year or less. This means we can continually recycle the collection, so visitors keep learning,’ says Damien. The 200sq m Creepy Crawlies floor has been developed to simulate natural living conditions and offers more than 30 species, including snakes, insects, geckos, lizards, iguanas and amphibians from all over the world. Organised by theme, it includes an insect wall, iguana enclosure, Burmese python enclosure and tree snake area, as well as a rope bridge for kids to clamber across and spy the piranha-filled rainforest area below.
From the Singaporean Blue Tarantula with its bright-blue legs to the Dead Leaf Mantis, which mimics decaying, crumbling leaves, these creatures are truly fascinating. What little lad (or lass) wouldn’t be wowed by a blood-squirting lizard or a Rhino Beetle that looks like a mini dinosaur? They are also, surprisingly, much less ‘creepy’ up close, making me rather ashamed both of my insect indifference and my former contempt for cockroaches (apparently they’re very hygienic).
By the end of our close encounter, my own lizard-loving little one is not only an expert on the hunting habits of the Earth Tiger Tarantula, but has endless (and I mean ‘endless’) questions about the social habits of the Madagascar Hissing Cockroach. Definitely a showcase you ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ over, it’s also an amazingly educational and – for me – enlightening experience. And while I may not be ready to cuddle a cockroach quite yet, I certainly won’t be so hasty in the banishing of bugs the next time they enter my boudoir.
Entrance for the Aquarium & Underwater Zoo includes the Creepy Crawlies exhibit. Dhs70 adults, Dhs55 kids (3-16), under threes free. (www.thedubaiaquarium.com; 04 448 5200)
6 of the best… beastly buys
Spy on slimies
Navir Spider Eye Microscope
With 10X magnification, kids aged five and above can get up close with nature and its inhabitants.
Dhs39, Little Explorers
Build an ant hill
Backyard Science Ant Hill Making Kit
A cool garden project, build an ant hill with this moulding and painting kit. Then invite your ant friends in and observe their daily activities.
Ages8+ Dhs29, Hamleys
Catch some bugs
Hamleys Nature Explorer
For budding biologists, this bug-catching kit includes a bug viewer, binoculars, bug net, magnifiers and water tank with lid.
Ages8+ Dhs139, Hamleys
Observe a spider
Animal Planet Remote-Controlled Tarantula
For kids who love crawlies, this spider with furry texture and realistic crawling movement will bring the animal kingdom to life.
Dhs99, Toys R Us
Learn about insects
The World of Insect Life
How far can a flea jump? Why do honeybees dance? Find fascinating facts about everything in the insect world with this Young Encyclopedia pictorial book.
Ages3+ Dhs129, Little Explorers
Play with bugs
Melissa & Doug Bugs Floor Puzzle
Introduce your tots to bugs with this interactive jigsaw with 24 easy-clean jumbo pieces.
Ages3-4 Dhs35, Toys R Us