Ask me what I imagined when we booked a few days in Dubai as part of our ‘round the world trip last year and I would have said sand and sun. Never would I have included snow, cold or penguins in my image of the desert oasis. In two days we had soaked up sun, spent time in the Dubai Mall (with over 1200 stores and the largest food court I’ve ever seen), ridden the impressive rail system & dune bashed on a desert safari excursion. There was still much more to experience.
Tucked away in the Mall of the Emirates we found a small piece of the Antarctic. Aussie friends we met in Egypt told us they skied in Dubai and although we were thrilled for them; the snow and cold were things we were running from-not towards. As a flip-flop wearing sunshine follower, I would rarely chose to be cold by choice (or putting on clothing worn by hundreds before me for that matter), but that’s just what we did.
Ski Dubai is smack in the center of the Mall of the Emirates. Through immense glass windows it’s a snow-globe scene come to life. Here, snowmen are created, slopes are skied and winter sparkles while outside there is a desert climate of 100F/40C heat. Definitely impressive and oddly magical neither of us showed interest in trading our shorts & tank tops for a parka and boots. And then we saw the sign…Penguin Encounter. ‘Seriously?’ I exclaimed as my eyes lit up like a kid in a candy shop and my husband’s face told all.
We’ve seen penguins in the wild before, but they have all been those centered in warm weather. In Philip Island, Australia we were among many who waited for the parade of Little Penguins to suddenly pop out of the water at sunset and waddle back to their burrows in their natural habitat. It has to be one of the cutest things I’ve ever witnessed. Although when some of our tiny furry friends proceeded to have very noisy penguin sex-that same hoard of spectators simultaneously blushed! In South Africa, Boulder Beach near Cape Point is filled with frolicking sand loving penguins soaking up vitamin D and delighting in the humans who adore them. This seemed too good to pass up.
It took us all of a minute to make the decision. We paid the fee (less than 100$ US for the both of us) and giggled over come by joy-seriously, penguins! We proceeded to rug up in the rented puffy jacket complete with snow pants, gloves, socks and boots. As one could imagine this oversized get-up made me feel like an abominable snowman and was my husband’s first experience in this type of cold weather garb. “Pop your clothes & belongings in a locker and wait here for a minute’ said the team member who would lead us into the frozen tundra. No cameras, phones or any objects that could disturb the birds were allowed inside. I could feel my anticipation rising along with the cold as it assaulted my face when we stepped into the ice. We watched a short video and then, when I was about to burst with excitement, the door opened.
I can only imagine that even those who love winter, cold and snow would be impressed by the immense ice enclosure. Built with the little guys in mind, this ice world is completely penguin friendly. Glittery snow mounds are everywhere with penguin sized ice-luges available at every turn. The lights, the climate and even the air quality were all designed to mirror the everyday existence of these birds. We met the keepers who explained a little about the two types of penguins that were here. We would meet a King penguin (like Mumble in Happy Feet) and a Gentoo penguin (like Ramon from Happy Feet) in our short time and those were the sort we would see waddle past us in this snow-covered chamber. Whether from adrenaline or temperature I didn’t know, but I was shaking. We were actually going to pet a penguin. Never could I have imagined this.
Ami (a King penguin) wandered to and fro and eventually waddled her way right up in front of our group of smiling onlookers. When she was ready this impressive animal let us touch her feathers to feel her soft, sleek coat. ‘Slowly place your hand and lightly touch her on her back’ coaxed one of the keepers. After plopping a very slimy fish in her beak, she gave us the honor of a photo. Speedy (a Gentoo penguin), on the other hand, just wanted to play. Throw a toy in his direction and he was your best friend. Speedy’s demeanor was akin to that a toddler who continued to drop the cup from the highchair knowing you’d pick it up again. Quick, feisty and upbeat this Gentoo penguin exuded fun. Ask him to sit still for a photo op-well, that was another task all its own, but we were in Speedy’s world and his choices and decisions were final. We considered ourselves lucky to be sharing the air with these beautiful penguins. Our hearts were happy.
The twenty penguins (ten of each type) arrived in Dubai by way of San Antonio, Texas’ Sea World. Outside of a journey to the wild, Ski Dubai is the only place in the entire world to have an actual penguin encounter. The staff inside were wonderful and it was clear that the birds were truly in charge. Although I know that our penguin friends will not remember this day or our names for that matter-I am certain that we will forever remember Speedy and Ami.