They glide like magic carpets through their 20,000-gallon pool. When you reach in to stroke them, their gray backs feel softer than velvet.
For decades, Chicago's Shedd Aquarium has been home to stingrays. Now, for the first time, visitors can actually touch them.
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"Stingray Touch"Where: John G. Shedd Aquarium, 1200 S. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, (312) 939-2438 or sheddaquarium.org
When: Opens Friday, May 17, and runs through fall 2013, weather permitting. The Shedd Aquarium is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekends and holidays through Memorial Day. Summer hours begin on Tuesday, May 28, and are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily through Monday, Sept. 2.
Tickets: "Stingray Touch" is included in Shedd's $28.95-$37.95 Total Experience Pass, or can be added to other Shedd passes for $5 per person ($3 for Shedd members). For details, visit sheddaquarim.org.
The Shedd's new outdoor hands-on "Stingray Touch" exhibit debuts Friday, May 17, and remains open through the fall -- weather permitting.
It's an up-close, intimate experience.
"Stingrays are very friendly, gentle animals," said Elise Waugh, coordinator of communications and public relations for the Shedd Aquarium. "You can tell they know when people are around. They like to come to the surface. They are just as curious about us as we are about them."
About 40 stingrays -- both the diamond-shaped cownose rays (whose wingspan can reach 3 feet), and the bottom-dwelling round yellow rays -- are showcased at "Stingray Touch."
Guests are invited to reach into the 2½-foot-deep pool to stroke the cownose stingrays as they glide to the water's surface. The speckled yellow rays don't rise to the surface, but instead scoot along the pool's base to watch the action from below.
"The experience of sliding your hand along the smooth tip of a stingray's wing connects our guests directly to what they've read in books and online," said Ted A. Beattie, president and CEO of the Shedd Aquarium, in a prepared statement. "It's a memorable experience that will stay with each visitor, inspiring them to care about the health of our oceans and the magnificent creatures that live in them."
While in the wild, stingrays use their long, barbed tails to protect themselves from predators. But guests at "Stingray Touch" don't need to worry -- all of the exhibit's stingrays have their barbs trimmed by Shedd staff members.
The trimming is similar to clipping fingernails and is painless to the animals, Waugh said.
At a preview earlier this week, each stingray's appearance on the water's surface was met by excited squeals from guests.
Generally traveling in packs, the stingrays rounded the pool again and again, sometimes taking a break to visit the human-free waterfall area.
"This exhibit is a really cool way to get to know these stingrays," said veterinarian Dr. Bill Van Bonn, Shedd's vice president of animal health.
Twice a day, the stingrays are fed a mixture of fish including herring, mackerel and shrimp, said George Parsons, senior director of the Shedd's fish department. Vitamins are also given to the animals as a supplement to their diet.
And for a little fun, Parsons said the Shedd staff has been providing enrichment activities for the stingrays. Toy balls have been filled with fish and treats, and the animals push and play with them.
Parsons, who recalls first petting a stingray himself 45 years ago, says he has never forgotten the "fascinating and inspirational" experience.
"I'm so glad we can give this experience to our guests," he said.
"You just can't describe it," Waugh added. "For many people, it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience."