Sea lions who are kings of Atlantis in Dubai

Visitors to The Atlantis hotel, on Palm Jumeirah, can get up close and personal to pat and stroke four South African Fur Seals as part of a newly launched tour in a specially chilled bathing pool.
Swan, a 13-year-old South African Fur Seal, is one of four sea lions attracting crowds to Sea Lion Point at the Atlantis hotel complex on the Palm Jumeirah in Dubai. Visitors can pat, stroke and hug the animals – and the lucky ones might be favoured with a kiss. Antonie Robertson / The National
Swan, a 13-year-old South African Fur Seal, is one of four sea lions attracting crowds to Sea Lion Point at the Atlantis hotel complex on the Palm Jumeirah in Dubai. Visitors can pat, stroke and hug the animals – and the lucky ones might be favoured with a kiss. Antonie Robertson / The National

DUBAI // Shaking “hands” or even getting a kiss from a sea lion might not be as romantic as swimming with dolphins, but it definitely wins in the cuteness stakes.

Visitors to Atlantis, The Palm hotel, on Palm Jumeirah, can get up close and personal to pat and stroke four South African Fur Seals as part of a newly launched tour in a specially chilled bathing pool.

Confusingly, the Fur Seals are in fact sea lions: the difference is that their ears are visible and their rear flippers enable them to walk more easily on land.

The animals were brought to the hotel from a facility in France in December last year, with staff gradually training them to interact with the public.

So far it has been a hit, with more than 500 people having photos taken with the animals since February this year.

“Before it was a dry experience, now we want to allow the guests to get into the water with them,” said Heidi Perez Cao, vice president of Sea Lion Point at the hotel.

“Not many facilities around the world allow guests to interact with sea lions.”

The new Sea Lion Discovery lasts about 15 minutes and costs Dh595 for visitors, and Dh495 for hotel guests. However, each booking also includes access to the Aquaventure water park for the day. There are two or sometimes three sessions a day, with a maximum of 10 people in each group.

The hotel recently acquired another three sea lion pups from Germany that are being trained. At only two or three years old, they are much younger then average age of 13 in the first batch.

A trainer stays with the animals for eight or nine hours each day, and most of the interaction involves a psychological technique called “operant conditioning”.

The animals are taught to clap, sing, kiss and jump by a repetitive process of reward and encouragement.

Ms Perez Cao said it would take six months to a year for the new animals to be sufficiently conditioned to be able to interact with the public.

The hotel also has six dolphins that are looked after in minute detail. Water samples are taken every day from the pool, and analysed in a laboratory attached to the lab.

Blood samples are taken once a month and ultrasound scans and blow hole swabs are done daily.

Although certain types of sea lion can be aggressive in the wild, the Fur Seals owned by the hotel are not at all hostile to humans, although they sometimes act rough with other sea lions, said Andreas Avila, an assistant manager for marine mammal operations.

The three males can sometimes squabble over superiority, butting chests and slapping each other with their flippers. “The males can be rough with the females too sometimes,” said Mr Avila.

mcroucher@thenational.ae

Published: May 19, 2014 04:00 AM

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