MUSEUM CAMPUS — If you've ever touched the glass at a Shedd Aquarium exhibit wondering what the marine life behind it felt like, the city's premier aquatic habitat has great news for you.
On April 27, the aquarium will launch its first outdoor, interactive exhibit, "Stingray Touch," which will allow guests to interact with cownose and yellow rays in an 18,000-gallon pool outside the building's south entrance.
"Our guests have always asked for this," said Amy Ritter Cowen, the executive vice president of marketing and guest experience at the Shedd. "Stingrays are incredibly beautiful, really charismatic animals. They're one of those animals that people often say, 'What does it feel like?' The timing was right to utilize, for the first time for us, an outdoor space, and this one is surrounded by gardens."
The feature will include about 40 rays of both species, though Ritter Cowen said the cownose rays are the sociable ones. The 80-by-22-foot habitat, located under a tent on the aquarium's south terrace, will be a shallow two and a half feet along the perimeter, allowing visitors to touch the friendlier rays. But it will have varying depths that include private areas for animals that need a break from the attention.
"[The] yellows are not as social, so they'll probably be in the center of the habitat," Ritter Cowen said. "They'll be there to interact with the cownose rays. It's the cownose rays that are really the stars" of the exhibit.
There won't be any age restrictions limiting the little ones from meeting the rays up close, but the aquarium hopes parents will police their small children — for the rays' sake, not to protect the kids. The stingrays' defensive barbs, which are similar to fingernails, will be trimmed by Shedd staff, making them safe to touch despite their menacing moniker, according to Dr. Bill Van Bonn, Shedd’s vice president of animal health.
The exhibit will feature Shedd staff who guide guests through a 15-minute "touch experience," where they'll share information about the species and guide visitors' interactions with the animals. Whether there will be an extra charged to visit the exhibit hasn't been determined yet, said Shedd spokeswoman Sheena Quinn.
"We're always looking at ways to inspire people and get them excited about the mission," Ritter Cowen said. That mission includes education about seafood sustainability, which the aquarium promotes through its "Right Bite" program that includes guides to Chicago restaurants that use ethically-caught seafood.
Ritter Cowen said stingrays are particularly vulnerable to predatory fishing practices, and many are injured or killed by fishing crews hunting for seafood.
"Our guests have been asking for this for a very long time, we think it's gonna be a huge hit."
The exhibit will be open through the fall.