Stingrays easy to handle in Shedd Aquarium’s new exhibit
BY KARA SPAK Staff Reporteremail@example.com May 13, 2013 3:14PM
♦ May 17-October (end date is weather dependent)
♦ Shedd Aquarium, 1200 South Lake Shore Dr.
♦ (312) 939-2438;
Updated: May 20, 2013 7:54PM
In her 24 years as a Shedd Aquarium member, Joan Reylek has only once touched a Shedd animal, during an errant encounter with a sea otter.
That changed Monday for Shedd members — and May 17 for all guests — with “Stingray Touch,” the newest seasonal aquarium exhibit that allows visitors to plunge their hands into a warm saltwater pool to experience the scratchy and silky feel of a stingray.
“I think it’s fabulous,” said Reyleck, 56, from Bridgeport. “I think you appreciate the rays a lot more when you can touch them.”
“Stingray Touch” features nearly 50 Cownose and Yellow rays, silently swimming through 18,000 gallons of salt water in a pool atop the Shedd’s “Wild Reef” exhibit. It’s a light-filled slice of nature in the city, an exhibit in an airy tent surrounded by carefully manicured gardens where water-colored flowers are beginning to bloom and other plants are grown as food for select Shedd animals.
Visitors entering the exhibit must scrub up like soapless surgeons, washing their hands and forearms with water only (stingrays don’t like soap). Consider taking off watches, jewelry or anything else you don’t want submerged in saltwater. Then lean in to the water, heated between 78 and 80 degrees, as the stingray group swims laps around the pool’s edge.
“They’re very well known to be very curious and gentle and graceful,” said Bill Van Bonn, Shedd’s vice president of animal health. “It’s a really cool way to see the animal.”
Safety for both visitors and the animals is paramount. Two guides sit on lifeguard chairs, speaking about the animals and watching visitors to make sure they don’t toss food or their entire bodies into the exhibit.
Despite the bad press stingrays got after “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin was killed by a stingray barb piercing his chest, the animals are trained to interact with humans.
“They use (their barb) as a defensive mechanism in the wild if they were to be attacked by other animals,” he said. “It’s very unusual for people to be injured. These guys have been acclimated to being here at the aquarium. They’ve been hand fed and appear to be excited to see people.”
It would be hard to get your hand on the barb — stingrays swim fast — but even if you did, Shedd staff regularly trim the stingers with dog nail clippers.
The animals, from Florida, started their acclimation to human touch when aquarium staff dropped an empty wet suit into the pool. Once the stingrays were used to that, a human wearing a wetsuit jumped into the tank, followed by hand feeding, said Michelle Sattler, aquarium collections manager.
In the wild, stingrays swim in giant groups. Here, they also like to stick together.
While there are other ways to personally meet the animals at the Shedd, like the beluga encounter, “Stingray Touch” is by far the most affordable. It is included in the “Total Experience Pass” ($37.95 for adults, $28.95 per child 3-11) or as a $5 add-on to the Shedd Pass ($28.95 per adult, $19.95 for child 3-11).
“It’s a treat and a privilege to be able to meet them up close,” Van Bonn said. “Be nice, be kind, be gentle and enjoy them.”