The malls of Dubai: Skiing, scuba diving, and shopping

Dubai Malls

Every country has its own culture of shopping. Italy has the pedigree, with worn estate leather goods from Tuscany and glittering catwalks fueling Milan’s couture. America boasts 5th Avenue, the biggest week in fashion, and the cookie-cutter malls of middle-America. Shopping in Paris is as elegant as it is expensive, where visiting the temples of Chanel, Dior, and Hermes is like a Hajj for fashionistas. Getting fitted for a suit on Savile Row in London is a gentlemanly apex, one that is best achieved while gently pulling on a cherry-wood pipe and commenting on cheeky matters from a pink-tinged page of the Financial Times.

In Dubai, The malls are king. Vast expanses of high end extravagance, these oases from the draping emirate heat are stocked with Gucci, Tom Ford, Louis Vuitton, and any other brand that peddles four-figure handbags to the jet set. Just as America brought the shopping mall to retail prominence, Dubai has perfected the art, blown it up, and put it all back together with megatons of glitter, pomp, and reckless luxury. But more so than brands and shine, the malls of Dubai also have other extraordinary features. A skating rink and a movie theater? That is so 20th century. How about scuba diving, snow skiing, and visiting the tallest building in the world? Welcome to the malls of Dubai.

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The Dubai Context
Dubai is a culture of shopping. From its historical role as a trading port, the city has grown out of the sand on the back of traders traveling from South Asia to the markets of Europe and beyond. With this came an understanding of the international ebb and flow of trade. It became a hub for the trading of gold, spices, and pearls. Many of Dubai’s souqs still operate as such, and wooden cargo ships from Bengal line Dubai Creek.

Dubai Malls

Still today, Dubai poses a dominating presence in international trade, and by 2013, little known Al Maktoum International Airport could become the busiest cargo airport in the world. With this sort of action, over time, any city will grow up. But a city like Dubai did so almost overnight. The malls are a symbol for this explosion of excess and success, however fleeting it may or may not someday be.

The Dubai Mall
At almost 12 million square feet (3.77 million square feet of retail space), Dubai Mall spreads out across downtown Dubai in the shadow of the world’s tallest building – the Burj Khalifa. By total area, Dubai Mall is considered the largest mall in the world – a claim made all the more believable during long strolls through its massive never-ending corridors. With its size and elegant trappings, this is unmistakably THE mall of the Middle East and a temple to the newest religion of the region – shopping. This is where wealthy Emirati, Saudi, and Qatari women come to purchase the designer duds that remain cloaked under burqas. This is where the Middle-west meets the Middle-east.

dubai malls

The mall boasts twelve hundred shops, the tallest building in the world, and a massive aquarium filled with sharks, tropical fish, and corals. The Dubai Aquarium is great to look at, but why stop there? For scuba divers, a mall dive site may seem contrary to the spirit of exploration. But, after suiting up and hitting the tank, the unique experience will win over even the most pessimistic diving purists. Flanking a reef shark while, just meters away, robed shoppers grasp Fendi clutches is a surreal exercise in atypical diving. A dive in Dubai Mall costs roughly $170. For a much cheaper and dry option, check out the Aquarium tunnel and underwater zoo for $14.

“At the Top” is a spirited jaunt to the observation tour of the stratospheric Burj Khalifa. Access to the attraction is located on the lower ground level of the Dubai Mall, and it costs about $27. After checking in (making reservations is hypercritical during busy days), the world’s fastest elevator rockets patrons to the 124th floor at 30 feet per second. The observation deck is only 55% up the Burj, but it hardly feels that way as you glance out at the curvature of the earth. The view is second to none, and just moments later, you can be back in the mall, at the food court dining at Hot Dog on a Stick, Fatburger, or any other of the random western eateries seemingly plucked from Middle America.

dubai malls

Just outside the mall entrance is a daily impromptu car-show of Ferraris, Bugattis, Lambos, and Porsches, each representing offensive and loud corners of the rainbow. Of course, it is just a parking lot, but in a country where license plate numbers routinely fetch 7 figure payouts, the parking lots are more colorful than a Skittles commercial. Banana yellow, Qatari royal blue, and hellfire red are just some of the colors blasting eyes with candy hues. Indeed, Dubai is a place that appreciates fast Arab horses and faster Italian cars.

If you wish to stay near the Dubai Mall, the Armani Hotel in the Burj Khalifa is a great though expensive option. The interiors are minimalist, the halls are spaceship chic, and the beds are cloud-like. Rooms start at a painful $454. For cheaper options, search aggregator sites like Kayak for a slew of sub $100 options in downtown Dubai. For an interesting and delicious dining option, check out At.mosphere on floor 122 of the Burj Khalifa.

Mall of the Emirates
The original Dubai super-mall is beginning to show her age, at least relative to the newer and larger Dubai Mall. Only in Dubai can a half a decade old mall look dated, but 5 years feels like 20 years in Dubai time. Fast change makes for faster obsolescence. But, the Mall of the Emirates has a weapon that even time cannot rob – a winter wonderland complete with ski slopes, tubing slides, and snowfall in a city that receives about 5 inches of rainfall per year. Here, Emirati children engage in snowball fights while their parents carve down man-made ski runs. This is Ski Dubai.

dubai malls

It is easy to forget you are in the middle of the desert as you don a down jacket and boot up to hit the slopes. Complete with a ski lift and a mountain chalet, Ski Dubai is as strange as it sounds. Whether you are hypersensitive about 21st century water shortages or you run sprinklers mid-day in August, gazing out at the indoor slope will incite a WTF moment. It is surreal, magnificent, and, perhaps most surprising to your desert adjusted body, very cold.

Beyond the wintery attraction, the Mall of the Emirates boasts a ridiculous amount of high end shops. From Audemars Piguet to Brioni, the shopping center is no slouch in the luxury department.

Connected to Dubai Metro on the red line, the Mall of the Emirates is very easy to visit.

The Future
Dubai seems built to embrace the impossible. The buildings soar above clouds, islands magically appear just offshore, and the malls are built to the exacting standards of this patented Emirati creative indulgence. It is Disney meets Arabia, with just a pinch of batshit insane. In the book Alice in Wonderland, the Queen muses on impossibility, telling Alice “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” A similar approach to the impossible has carved the skyline of Dubai out of the rolling desert dunes. It will be interesting to see if shifting sands and global economics will allow these impossibilities to stand the test of time.

dubai malls

All photography by Justin Delaney @justindelaney

Support for this program was partially provided by DTCM, with no limits on editorial or photographic content.

Maldives in Peril: SCUBA surveying with Fabien Cousteau

There are few places on the planet as remote as the Maldives. Landfall is a thousand miles away from much of the long string of 1,200 islands, most of which are little more than thin, uninhabited atolls. Diving into the heart of a Maldivian lagoon it is easy to imagine you are alone in one of Planet Ocean’s most distant paradises.

Yet when I did just that a few days ago, in the heart of the Baa Atoll — 400 square miles of aquamarine Indian Ocean recently named a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve — something didn’t feel, or look, quite like paradise.

The ocean, though jaw-droppingly beautiful, was bathtub warm, 86, 87 degrees F. Diving to its shallow floor it was quickly clear that the realm below sea level here has been badly impacted in recent years by a combination of man, Mother Nature and fast-warming temperatures.

The coral reefs of the Maldives were first badly hammered in 1998, when shifting ocean patterns associated with El Niño raised sea level temps above 90 degrees for more than two weeks. The result was that 70 to 90 percent of the reefs surrounding the Maldives 26 atolls were badly “bleached,” the warm temperatures killing off the symbiotic algae that lives within the coral and gives it color.

I was diving with Fabien Cousteau, grandson of Jacques and executive director of Plant A Fish, and Mark Lynas, author and climate change adviser to Maldives President Mohammed Nasheed. During our first dive along a shallow reef in the middle of Baa Atoll we repeatedly signaled “thumbs down” to each other, as it became clear that this reef was a long way from any kind of comeback. Blanched the color of cement, the coral tips were mostly broken off leaving behind bare rock.

Maldives-based marine biologist Kate Wilson dove with us and had explained that any comeback had been slowed when, last April, a second mass-bleaching event occurred, with high sea temperatures again sweeping the area spurred by a changing climate worldwide.

Mark would later describe the scene as “eerie,” a “coral graveyard, with rubble and bare rock coated in slimy green algae.” Fabien’s photographs showed a murky, fish-less seafloor.
Kate assures there are reefs less impacted by local fishing and closer to colder currents, which are making strong comebacks. We head for one by boat.

It is not all bleak in the Maldives, there are some very good things going on too. Last year the island nation (home to 320,00) became just one of two countries to completely ban shark fishing in its 35,000 square mile exclusive economic zone (Palau is the other). Maldivians don’t eat shark, they were only being hunted for shark fin soup. It’s estimated the value of a single shark to diving tourists versus fishermen was $3,300 to $32.

Tuna fishing is limited to being caught by pole, one of the most sustainable forms of fishing. And the naming of Baa Atoll as an eco-reserve is significant, placing it along such sites as the Galapagos, Ayer’s Rock in Australia, the Pantanal wetlands of Brazil and Amboseli National Park in Kenya. The challenge now is to educate fishermen that the area is off-limits, find them optional employment and fund enforcement.

Our boat stops off a reef known as Hanifaru, which Kate assures is the healthiest in the atoll.
It is dramatically different. Just below the brightly sunlit surface hundreds of shiny reef fish dart and feed. In the deep, dark blue swim the Maldivian big guys – jackfish, tuna and red snapper, each over one hundred pounds. An occasional spotted eagle ray elegantly flaps past, as do a pair of green turtles.

During a mile-long swim we spy an incredibly beautiful and vast variety of wrasses, clown, surgeon and parrotfish. A dusky moray eel peeks out of its coral hideaway. And a square-headed porcupine fish attempts to hide itself deep inside a rock crevice. The shallow, sandy floor running to a sandbar is heavy with gray-beige coral, colorful clams and even a few handsome sea cucumbers.

On the way back to shore, we quiz Kate about the future of the reefs and the Biosphere.
Where will the funding come to protect the new park? “The government, local communities and half-dozen resorts that operate within the atoll. Starting in January 2012 tourists are going to pay too, buying permits for sport fishing, swimming with the manta rays and diving, which will all go into the management of the biosphere.”

Are some zones completely off-limits to fishing? “Seven core areas are strict no-take zones.”
What about pelagic, open-ocean fishes like bluefin tuna, are they protected? “Since they are migratory species it is quite hard to manage them; once they are out of Maldivian waters and into open ocean they are targeted by international fishing fleets. So even though the Maldives fisheries is one of the most protected, the fishing stocks are still declining.”

Can the coral truly recover if water temperatures keep rising as they have been? “It’s a good test here to see just how fast corals can adapt. It’s not just about the temperature but also about acidification as well, so all of the corals are really at a critical point. No on really knows how quickly they’ll adapt, if at all. What you’re seeing could become the new norm.”

[Image credit: Fabien Cousteau]

UNESCO’s Underwater Cultural Heritage Sites: A Photo Gallery




Ancient shipwrecks, sunken World War II vessels, underwater caves, and submerged cities – these are but a few of the treasures classified as significant and in need of protection on UNESCO’s underwater cultural heritage list.

UNESCO has been promoting the protection of the world’s cultural and natural heritage for almost four decades, yet its convention on underwater cultural heritage has been in existence only since 2001. UNESCO adopted the convention as a way to ensure that underwater archeological sites were protected in situ (in their underwater location), although there are a few maritime and archeological museums that hold significant artifacts from the ocean. Another reason to preserve these sites in the sea is to honor their role as underwater graveyards, such as with the wreckage of the Titanic. Indeed, many of the sunken sites on the heritage list function “as a time capsule, providing a complete snapshot of the life on board at the time of sinking.”

Scuba diving near many of these heritage sites is not allowed or near impossible. But since wreck diving is a popular and exhilarating adventure activity, UNESCO recommends four diving trails in Australia, Florida, Israel, and Sweden and has drawn up a Code of Ethics for Diving on Submerged Archeological Sites for divers who do want to explore wrecks and ruins. For the rest of us, there’s this gallery of some of the amazing artifacts resting on the ocean floor.

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[All photos: UNESCO]

Blackbeard’s pirate ship gives up its anchor

pirate, pirates, Blackbeard
A pirate ship owned by the notorious Blackbeard is being investigated by archaeologists, who have just retrieved one of its anchors.

The Queen Anne’s Revenge, was grounded in 1718 while trying to enter Beaufort Inlet, North Carolina. Blackbeard had just come from blockading Charleston until he received a ransom. Currently the wreck lies in only 20 feet of water, as easily accessible to archaeologists as Captain Kidd’s pirate ship, which will soon become an underwater museum.

The anchor, which is 11 feet long and weighs 2,200 lbs, is only one of thousands of artifacts recovered from the ship in recent years.

While Blackbeard transferred to another of his ships and continued pirating, he didn’t survive for long. He was hunted down and killed in a fierce fight in late 1718, shown here in a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Blackbeard was decapitated and his head hung from the bowsprit.

Blackbeard was one of the kinder pirates. There’s no record that he hurt his captives or his crew. He could be violent when opposed, though, and in reality no pirate fit the heroic adventurer stereotype of Hollywood and Johnny Depp. That’s just a romanticism. One wonders what tales people will spin about the Somali pirates 300 years from now.

For more information about this amazing dig, check out The Queen Anne’s Revenge Shipwreck Project’s website.

Dive Communist plane off the coast of Bulgaria

dive communist planeFish are pretty and shipwrecks are cool to explore, but how would you like to dive a

Communist airplane in the Black Sea? A 1971 Soviet-made Tupolev-154 was submerged this week off the coast of Bulgaria to create an artificial reef for SCUBA divers. Orlin Tsanev, chairman of Black Sea Dive Odesos association, told Reuters: “The submerging of the plane aims to make it an attraction and (a place) for training divers.”

Made for former Bulgarian Communist ruler Todor Zhivkov, the plane’s engines and interior were removed and the body of the aircraft is now 22 meters deep, making it the largest plane underwater in the world. The plane has been grounded since 1999 but once also carried Communist leaders such as Fidel Castro. Zhivkov’s private yacht was previously purchased for cruises on the Danube River.

The new dive site is located near the resort town of St. Konstantin and Elena, just north of Bulgaria’s “summer capital” of Varna. Read more about travel in Varna here.

Photo courtesy AP