The coolest place in Dubai: Penguin Encounters are Ski Dubai | VailDaily.com

The coolest place in Dubai: Penguin Encounters are Ski Dubai

Laura Bell
Special to the Daily

Sliding on their bellies, communicating with their friends and giving their favorite humans cuddles, penguins are one of the most fascinating flightless birds on the planet.

While they primarily live in the Southern Hemisphere, tucked away in one of the largest shopping malls in the world — The Mall of the Emirates, located in Dubai, United Arab Emirates — is the world's foremost conservation-based penguin interactive experience at Ski Dubai.

Here, visitors can meet, greet and interact with these gentle creatures. Gentoo and king penguins grace the habitat and are as curious about the visitors as the visitors are about the penguins. Just try taking a penguin selfie and you will find your phone or camera is a constant source of amusement or perhaps, according to Sarah Pillay, one of the directors of the 16-person penguin team, "They might think the phone in front of their face is food."

Although Ski Dubai is the world's second largest indoor ski slope (China has bragging rights) with 22,500 square meters — about 5.5 skiable acres — it has been in existence since 2005 and the Penguin Encounters did not begin until 2012. These encounters are the first of their kind in the world.

Ambassadors in tuxedos

These penguins are part of a worldwide research and conservation program in conjunction with the Hubbs-Seaworld Research Institute.

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The penguins' sophisticated habitat is pristine; their water has no chlorine and big tanks with ozone gas filter waste and by-products. There is a sterile medical facility. The each member of the team working with the penguins has a background in animal husbandry or marine animal experience. They record daily how much the penguins eat, how many guests they have met, if they are molting, breeding or whatever else is going on in their lives.

One penguin suffered from cataracts. A penguin ophthalmologist (yes, there is such a person) was flown in from South Africa to operate.

"It was amazing," said Eric Novales, another penguin team member who hails from the Philippines. "After his surgery you could call his name and he would turn around and look at you, where as before he wasn't able to look you in the eye."

"These penguins are ambassadors for their species. They are here to inspire and educate," Pillay said. "Every now and then we get a bad write up from someone on TripAdvisor who has only seen that there are penguins in the mall. But this is about conservation education and sustaining population."

A research scientist who studies penguin markings and vocalizations visits Dubai each year, hoping to create a recognition tool for penguins in the wild. Ski Dubai sponsors trips to Antarctica to further the research. Thanks to this funding, the researcher launched the first drone in Antarctica, which was used to assess the number of penguins in various colonies.

"Through the penguin experience we want people to know about what penguins in the wild experience. Their number in the wild is really, really low," Novales said. "That is our main purpose, but we also believe that the more you experience and get to know them first hand, the more you will appreciate them and you will know how beautiful they really are."

In addition to meeting penguins, guests can also swim with the penguins for 15 minutes. The swim, which is limited to two guests at a time, only happens on Wednesdays.

"It's like Christmas for the penguins, they get so excited and they want to interact," Pillay said. "If we had swims every day, the penguins would not be so excited. They love to play. We had two women who came from Scotland just to swim with the penguins. They flew in overnight, came to Ski Dubai with their luggage, swam that day and flew home the next day."

Wet suits, booties and gloves are loaned for the swim and those on the meet-and-greet receive ski pants, long parkas and boots.

Same sex adoption

Penguins are extremely romantic and just like everything else in their world, the courtship is adorable.

The male penguin will lay a pebble at the female's feet. The female can accept or reject the pebble. If the female accepts, then the couple will mate. If not, then she will waddle away and he will look for a new partner.

Sheila and My One are female king penguins, one of the largest breeds. The two are inseparable and one dropped a pebble at the other's feet.

"They built a nest together for a chick, but of course they cannot mate," Pillay said.

The couple very much wanted to be parents, which would not have happened in the wild, but it did at the Penguin Encounter.

"When penguins have more than one egg, usually only the eldest chick survives because that is the strongest one. When one king couple had two chicks, we gave one to Shiela and My One," Pillay said. "They took turns with the chick and raised it successfully."

By all accounts they were excellent parents. The chicks grow quickly and do not spend a long time with their parents. So the couple suffered empty nest syndrome.

Since 2012, three gentoo and three king penguins have been born and raised at Ski Dubai.

March of the penguins

For those who do not have the finances or the time to participate in one of the penguin experiences, as the experiences are limited, there is a penguin march that takes place four times a day.

This can be viewed by visitors in the park or through a mall window. Trainers put the penguins through their paces, "stop," "hold," "flipper," — akin to a dog giving his paw — and the trainers teach visitors about their natural history and fun facts, such as when penguins slide on their bellies it is called tobogganing. They do it for fun and to travel faster.

For more information on penguin research at Hubbs-Seaworld Research Institute, visit http://www.hswri.org.

If you go …

For more information or to book a penguin experience or find times of the penguin marches, visit: http://www.skidubaipenguins.com

To book time on the slopes, or find out about other activities and Ski Dubai in general, visit http://www.skidubai.com.