MUSEUM CAMPUS — The last time Chicagoans had a chance to touch a stingray, at the Brookfield Zoo in 2008, a malfunction in the heating system caused the temperature to spike 10 degrees, killing 16 of the 33 rays overnight.
When the Shedd Aquarium's newest exhibit, "Stingray Touch," opens Friday, a staff of aquarists and facilities managers will be monitoring the outdoor pool 24/7 to ensure the optimum conditions for the 40 cownose and yellow rays who will live there until the late fall. Shedd staff said the system will help prevent a similar problem from taking place.
"We have a huge heat exchanger actually within the building that's all computer-controlled, and can maintain the temperature in the exhibit between 77 and 80 degrees, where it is usually," said Bill Van Bonn, Shedd's vice president of animal health. "That's obviously something we're very concerned about, being outdoors and in Chicago. So far it's been performing flawlessly, so we don't see an issue there."
The aquarium's first outdoor interactive exhibit consists of a 20,000-gallon pool with a three-part filtration system that pumps water through densely packed sand, a surface-cleaning skimmer and a "biological tower" filled with bacteria that eat the animals' waste and rebalance toxicity levels.
Each of the aquarium's habitats, including the Stingray Touch pool, are controlled and monitored using a "high-powered computer system, like a switchboard" that gives staff "complete control" over each exhibit's conditions, even remotely, Van Bonn said.
"The facilities guys walking around with their iPhones can look at all the data and make adjustments" from anywhere, he said. Security cameras trained on the pool are also monitored constantly to ensure any irregularities are spotted quickly.
"The days of coming around with a thermometer and finding out that there's a problem that happened several hours ago are pretty much done," Van Bonn said.
The tent constructed over the 80-by-22-foot habitat on the aquarium's south terrace is "more for the guests than the animals," who are accustomed to exposure to the sun and a climate similar to Chicago's in the summer and early fall, Van Bonn said.
The exhibit is expected to run through late fall or early winter, weather permitting, and is geared toward visitors 3 and older. Stingrays are social animals and don't mind being touched, aquarium president and CEO Ted Beattie said Tuesday, but their barbs have been removed as a precaution.
"It feels good, like a pillow, like a really, really soft pillow," a third-grade boy from St. Christopher's Catholic School in Midlothian said Tuesday after sticking his freshly washed hands in the tank during a sneak preview of the exhibit. "Or it kind of feels like the warm sand under your feet at the beach."
Admission to "Stingray Touch" is $5 per person ($3 for members) on top of the general Shedd admission prices. The exhibit is included in the aquarium's "Total Experience" package, which costs $37.95 per adult and $28.95 per child ages 3-11.
DNAinfo.com Chicago reporter/producer Jackie Kostek contributed to this report.