If you’ve said it once, you’ve said it a thousand times: “Look, but don’t touch.” This summer, save the phrase for the china shop and cut loose at Shedd Aquarium. Its Stingray Touch exhibit, opening Friday, May 17, invites kids of all ages to reach out and caress what are thought to be some of nature’s dangerous creatures. Along with learning about different stingray species and their wild habitats, you’ll see just how docile and friendly these ocean swimmers can be.

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All About the Rays
Stingrays are graceful, entrancing creatures — the ballerinas of the sea, you might say. Shedd captures their beauty and intrigue in a massive pool set in a tent along the Aquarium’s south terrace. Close to 40 cownose and yellow stingrays dart in the re-created ocean habitat. The cownose rays can reach up to three feet from wing tip to wing tip and are typically found throughout the western Atlantic and Carribean, although some of these resident rays were born onsite through Shedd’s breeding program. Yellow rays are a bottom-dwelling species that make their home in the tropical western Atlantic.

Despite their stereotype, stingrays are actually quite tame. In the wild, they use their stinging barbs as a defense mechanism, but without the threat of predators, they have no use for them. Shedd’s animal health team trims the barbs in a simple, painless manner similar to how we clip our fingernails. That makes them safe to touch.

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A Peek at the Pool
Stingrays have mesmerized Shedd guests for years in various permanent exhibits. Freshwater rays can typically be found in Amazon Rising, while blue spotted rays, ribbontail rays and fiddler rays glide through Wild Reef. Southern rays, yellow rays and cownose rays have their own special home in Caribbean Reef. But never before has the public been given a chance to touch stingrays at the Shedd, which is why the new exhibit is so special.

Stingray Touch’s oblong 80-by-22-foot pool holds 18,000 gallons of water and a waterfall, making it the largest outdoor exhibit in Shedd history. The pool has varying depths, with yellow rays slinking along the bottom of the pool, and cownose rays gliding at the surface. Colorful stingray-like structures dangle from the ceiling of the exhibit, and soothing music sets the soundtrack.

As you enter the exhibit, Shedd staffers dish interesting facts about stingrays. (Did you know, for example, that a stingray’s mouth, nostrils and gill slits are on its underbelly?) Then you have the opportunity to reach into the pool as the cownose rays swim by. Go ahead — touch the soft skin on their “back.” And don’t forget to brag about the experience to grandma afterward.

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The Fine Print
Stingray Touch is open from May 17 through the fall. Tickets are a $5 optional add-on ($3 for Shedd members) to the Shedd Pass ($28.95 per adult and $19.95 per child ages 3-11). Tickets are included in the Total Experience Pass ($37.95 per adult or $28.95 per child ages 3-11). Advance tickets are available now through Ticketmaster at 800-745-3000 or online at www.ticketmaster.com. The aquarium is open 9:00 am- 5:00 pm Monday through Friday, and 9:00 am-6:00 pm on weekends and holidays. Since it is an outdoor exhibit, Stingray Touch may not be open in inclement weather and rays will be moved to an indoor 45,000-gallon habitat behind the scenes for their safety.

Shedd Aquarium
1200 S. Lake Shore Dr.
Museum Campus
312-939-2438
Online: www.sheddaquarium.orgx

What is your favorite animal to check out at the Shedd Aquarium? Let us know in the Comments section below.

— Matt Kirouac

Photos: ©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez