Amy Barr a Penguin Trainer interact with penguins in an environment that has been created at Ski Dubai to replicate their natural habitat. Image Credit: Francois Nel/Gulf News

Dubai: Despite the sub-zero temperature inside their winter home at Ski Dubai, the special bond between the 20 Snow Penguins and their trainers, Amy Barr and Claudia van Klingeren, seems to be enough to keep the latter warm.

Physical contact — a stroke here, a tickle there, and lots and lots of cuddles — abound between the trainers and their eager students.

All 20 penguins — 10 King Penguins and 10 Gentoos — were flown into the region’s first indoor ski resort a year ago for the Snow Penguins at Ski Dubai programme. Born and bred in captivity, these penguins are part of a multi-generational conservation breeding programme at SeaWorld in San Antonio, Texas.

“What we did when they arrived was we just sat down in their bedroom, and we just waited until they came over to us to meet us,” Van Klingeren, 26, from the Netherlands, who is one of the 13 penguin trainers at Ski Dubai, told Gulf News.

Van Klingeren said it did not take long for the penguins to break the ice.

“Jumeirah was one of the first, together with Squeaky and McFatty, to come over to the trainers for cuddles. So he bonded really, really quickly which was really nice,” she recalls.

Communicating to the penguins was initially a challenge. Eventually, they learned to understand one-word sentences and hand gestures. They also learned to react when their names were called.

But this one-way communication has somehow ‘improved’ over the last two months.
“You find it in the mornings when you go in and they’ve just woken up, all the Gentoos will make a little sound as if to say ‘Good morning.’ It’s weird. We’re pretty convinced that they’re saying good morning to us because we always say hi,” Barr, 26, from the UK, told Gulf News.

One particular Gentoo called Pebbles actually does more to impress the trainers.
“She would always run over to you and the way that Gentoos say they love you is they bow and she does it to us all the time to sort of say “Hey! How you doing?” Barr adds.
The penguins are fed seven times during the day, beginning with breakfast at 9am. Only premium quality fish are served on the menu, Van Klingeren says.

“If there’s any scratch or anything on the fish that doesn’t look good, we always say, ‘If you’re in doubt, throw it out,’ because we only wanna give our penguins restaurant-quality fish and the best quality that we have. Usually the fish is fillet mignon,” she adds.

An important thing in the day’s work for the trainers is cleaning up the enclosure because penguins, especially the Gentoos, have a high metabolism.

“The Gentoos, we’d like to think of them as toddlers. They never stop moving until they go to sleep. The Kings are sort of chilled out. It takes about an hour and a half to clean their bedroom; that’s making sure everything is absolutely spotless,” Barr says.
By noon, all the penguins are ready for the daily March of the Penguins before the Peng-Friend Encounters where guests are given a chance to get up close and personal with the penguins. The birds interact with guests on shifts to make sure they don’t get tired during the day.

Telling who’s who in the colony has become quite an easy task for the trainers not only because of the colour-coded jewellery each penguin wears but because of the penguins’ unique personality and traits.

King Penguin Jumeirah, for example, has the smallest body posture and absolutely loves cuddles. Amsheet, also a King Penguin, has little bit of a green patch on her head and is very good at interacting with people. Cuddly, the youngest penguin, walks nice and slow and is actually the little princess of the colony.

“Whatever Cuddly wants, Cuddly gets. She’s very beautiful and she’s got the lightest colours of all the penguins because she’s the youngest,” Van Klingeren said.


Like human beings, some of the Snow Penguins also have an attitude.
“Mona Lisa is the diva of the colony. She’s got a little mole so she looks like Marilyn Monroe because of it,” Van Klingeren says.

“Mona Lisa also loves to meet people. So, if I were to describe her as a person, she’d probably be a hardworking businesswoman who doesn’t have any time for the boys ‘cause she’s so busy,” she adds.

While Mona Lisa is too busy to look for a mate, the others aren’t. And Barr and Van Klingeren say they’ve been fortunate enough to see penguin courtship in the colony. The most remarkable scenes were when Gentoo Penguin Pumpkin wooed Pi, who trainers call the ‘expensive penguin’ as she played hard to get initially.

“We saw that Pumpkin and Pi were doing a lot of flirting, a lot of courtship. So we got a big pile of stone and we sat down with them and, straightaway, Pumpkin was at those pebbles trying to find one,” Barr said.

When Gentoos get married, part of their courtship is that the male gives the female a little pebble. The female picks it up as a sign that she accepts him as her mate.

Pi’s big ‘yes’ proved elusive, at first. “Pumpkin had to ask Pi 13 times. Eventually, she said yes and they’ve been together now just over a year,” Barr recalls.

While Barr and Van Klingeren still have no children of their own, they both said they feel like they’re already mothers to these penguins who are very child-like. “They run around like toddlers, they really do and you’ll just get so close to them. I think of them as my kids,” Barr says.

“Personally, you get really attached, that’s inevitable because we work with them for five days a week. So they are like our family,” Van Klingeren says unable to hide a smile.