Down my two companions and I trooped into a waist-deep pool of cold water, where Lisa, a four-year-old spotted seal, had been patrolling, her eyes filled with curiosity. It was surreal to see the sleek, graceful creature swim towards me with no glass panel between us; and soon, not even distance separating us.
And then Lisa was next to me.
The half an hour I spent with her wasn't about stunts and tricks. It was more about finding out how much we have in common. Seals and humans are mammals after all. At the guide's command, Lisa floated belly-up. I touched the thick, grey fingernails on her flippers and stroked her belly button with my bare hands. Her belly button! I'd never even imagined these creatures would have such things. It was astonishing. Her silver-grey coat was smooth and soft if you brushed it one way, and bristly and sharp when you rubbed it the other.
I can't get the image of Lisa's large, black, watery eyes out of my mind. They seemed all black from afar, but with barely 30cm between us, I could see she had irises that dilated and contracted. For what seemed like an eternity, the guide let her lean her chest onto my thighs while I wrapped my arms around her thick neck. I could feel the weight and warmth of her 58kg body. Like humans, seals' normal body temperature is 36.8 degree Celsius. It's the thick layer of fat that helps her species pull through unforgiving winters in the wild.
Lisa came back and cuddled my companion twice without being asked. Was the reward of fish too irresistible or is her species so close to humankind, she just loves cuddles?
While Joyee was getting Lisa hugs, I'd put on a bulky jacket and down-filled trousers in preparation for the penguins - the Antarctic area is kept at 8-10 degrees Celsius all year round. We headed to the "back-of-house" area to find out how the keepers care for the penguins. They are regularly weighed and checked, over a mirror, for "bumble foot", the delightfully-named, very ugly foot infection. It was interesting to see the birds at ease with their keepers (top photo), happy to hop onto the scale, and waddle off when told.
Then came the real fun: we headed into the enclosure to meet the tuxedoed birds. And what a sight. Seven King, 55 Gentoo and 12 Southern Rockhopper penguins all bustling around, looking up to see who these massive-footed intruders were.
The birds seemed to have distinct personalities according to breed: the Kings stood off to one side, aloofly ignoring us once they realised we weren't food. The Rockhoppers are tiny, truly adorable balls of fluff, and very inquisitive - one kept pecking at a keeper's leg until she stepped away. The Gentoos, meanwhile, seem very sociable and talkative, wandering from friend to friend, seemingly having a bit of a chat before moving on to see what other gossip was going around.
We had to be particularly careful not to tread on the birds' delicate feet, which was easier said than done - we were in a virtual sea of black and white. After a quick photo, during which we got to actually touch a penguin, it was dinner time - we took it in turns to drop handfuls of fish into the feeding tray, watching with glee as the penguins pushed and shoved to grab the choicest morsels.
You think you know what a penguin's like, but until there's one pecking at your wellies, you have no idea.
Both sessions last 90 minutes, including an introduction to the different breeds, and insight into their habitats, threats to their livelihood and what you can do to help them.
The North Pole Encounter is HK$980 per guest (early bird discount HK$880 on or before December 31). The South Pole Spectacular is HK$880 per guest. Visit oceanpark.com.hk for details and to book.