Catching some (sting) rays at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium

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Cownose stingrays range over a large part of the western Atlantic and Caribbean, from New England to southern Brazil. -Photo: Courtesy

Petting a stingray is something I decided to do for the experience rather than the pleasure. But as I discovered at the Shedd Aquarium’s current exhibit “Stingray Touch,” the sensation of touching a stingray’s back as it glides effortlessly through the water is anything but unpleasant.

Open through October, “Stingray Touch” is the Shedd’s sole exterior exhibit. Housed under a brown canvas tent outside the aquarium’s octagonal main building, the exhibit consists of a long, wide and relatively shallow open tank populated with schools of some 40 cownose and yellow stingrays. Visitors must wash their hands and arms before coming into contact with the animals.

The yellow rays appear to bury themselves in the bottom sand and rarely come within reach of people. The cownose rays, however, are more sociable, gliding just beneath the surface in schools of two to 10 like a gang of gray ghosts. It sometimes takes a bit of effort, but virtually everyone is guaranteed a touch.

The ray’s skin is soft and fleshy – human-like skin but with a lubricant covering. The sensation of touching it is comforting, probably due to the familiarity of its feel.

It only occurred to us after stroking seven or eight of the diamond-shaped creatures that they are named “stingrays” for a reason. Fortunately, as one museum official told us, the poisonous barbs in the tail had been clipped, a process he described as similar to trimming fingernails. 

“Stingray Touch” is a quick visit that, like many others at the Shedd, exits through an impromptu gift shop. Fortunately there is a great deal more to see and do at the aquarium, not the least of which is an amazing display of jellies that easily trump the rays in their ethereal, otherworldly appeal.

Sea jellies, or jellyfish in more common parlance, also fall into the stinging categories. Their trailing tentacles of various lengths – from mere inches to over 100 feet – enable them to feed as well as protect themselves from predators. One of the few beneficiaries of global warming, jellies are booming in many areas of the world’s oceans, and massive “blooms” of the creatures have clogged harbors and closed beaches, making transportation difficult and swimming unsafe in some places.

Jellies, which are technically invertebrates and not fish, can be as small as grapes or as big as beds. Floating through the Shedd’s tanks in slow motion, they’re visually arresting. In the wild, some varieties generate their own light, while others go through reproductive cycles that allow their own rebirth – a form of primitive immortality. Those on display at the Shedd’s special exhibit, which has been extended through 2013, are absolutely fascinating.

Other attractions this season add to the Shedd’s appeal as a top destination for visitors to Chicago. The Abbott Oceanarium’s “One World,” a new aquatics show, features the aquarium’s dolphins and Beluga whales interacting with other performers and stressing the relationship between animals and humans. Residents of the Shedd’s 70-bird penguin colony have begun hatching this season’s chicks in nests built out of rocks. (Call ahead to check on the chicks’ status for viewing, if that’s a key attraction for you.)

Opened to the public in 1930, the Shedd offers one of the world’s most comprehensive sea life collections. With more than 32,500 animals on display in addition to the visiting stingrays, the Shedd guarantees a fascinating afternoon.

The aquarium’s regular collection includes life from various lakes, rivers and oceans around the world. The varieties of sharks in the Wild Reef exhibit are a crowd favorite. Also popular are the ornate and colorful Weedy Sea Dragons, members of the seahorse family.

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