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Touch of rays and sharks added to aquarium visit

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By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / April 11, 2011

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They’re surprisingly velvety to the touch, slightly scary by reputation, imbued with natural curiosity, and mesmerizing to watch swim around — and around, and around — their tropical-themed habitat.

Already drawing oohs and aahs from New England Aquarium members allowed access to the exhibit, the inhabitants of the new Trust Family Foundation Shark and Ray Touch Tank, which will open to the general public Friday, clearly possess star potential.

“Visitors are more sophisticated now. They want to be able to enter that aquatic world,’’ said aquarium official Jim Duffy, who helped design the $1.5 million exhibit.

More interactive attractions like this one are the wave of the future, he said. “The old model of frames on a wall with fish behind them doesn’t resonate so well.’’

The new shark and ray exhibit is both large — more than 50 feet in length, with a custom-made tank holding 25,000 gallons of sea water — and aesthetically distinctive, its design made to replicate a tropical mangrove lagoon. Occupying the space that once housed the ground-floor half of the jellyfish exhibit, it is being unveiled just in time for vacationing schoolchildren and their families next week.

Visitors entering the exhibit, to the left of the main lobby, will stand alongside the tank’s 31-inch-high, kidney-shaped wall. There they’ll have the option of reaching down to stroke the animals — or simply watch the underwater parade pass by, inches away. Behind the tank is a mural conjuring up a Caribbean island basking under blue skies and puffy white clouds. Wall-mounted displays provide additional information on individual species and their habits, habitats, and other characteristics.

The 80 animals on display include cownose rays, guitarfish, leopard whiptail rays, epaulette sharks, zebra sharks, and blacknose sharks. Although all are classified as elasmobranchs — which have skeletons made of cartilage and between five and seven gill openings on each side of their body — the creatures populating the new touch tank vary greatly in how they behave. Generally, the small-sized sharks are among the less active animals; the rays, especially the cownose variety, are more mobile and approachable.

None of the species are particularly aggressive, staff members say. The rays have also had their barbs clipped, minimizing any chance that a hand might receive an unwelcome sting.

Could the sharks bite someone, even by accident? Yes, says aquarium curator Steven Bailey, although most species currently on view lack serrated teeth, the stuff of “Jaws’’ nightmares.

“Ours is a well-studied species list,’’ said Bailey, who called the probability of a visitor getting nipped “so minimal that the reward of displaying these animals far outweighs any risks.’’

In fact, the bigger concern is the health and welfare of the sharks and rays. Staff members tell visitors not to grab onto or obstruct the animals while they are moving. Wearing large rings is discouraged as well, in order to protect the rays’ delicate skin from being scratched or bruised.

Visitors who previewed the exhibit last Friday expressed delight in interacting with such friendly, if mysterious, creatures. Jody Burr of Roslindale brought along a group of children that included four age 5 or younger. On the way to the aquarium, Burr said, “they kept asking if the sharks would come out of tank and eat them. But they’re not scared of them now.’’

Sophia Dow, 6, of East Longmeadow said the cownose rays felt soft and smooth, not at all what she expected. Makayla Clougherty, 9, of Lowell compared the texture of their skin to wet rubber. Liam Hartz, a Marshfield charter school student, used the phrase “wet fur’’ to describe the rays’ exterior.

“I thought they might feel slimy, but they’re really not,’’ said Hartz, who was surprised the rays seemed acclimated to close encounters with human hands.

The touch tank is the latest and largest such exhibit at the Boston aquarium, but it’s not the first. In 2008 a smaller model was erected on the site that is currently home to the aquarium’s marine mammal center. It was a hit, according to aquarium officials, drawing 600,000 visitors that summer. Taken down the following fall, it provided valuable insight for how a larger, more permanent exhibit might be designed and installed.

The new exhibit marks another milestone in the aquarium’s rebound from the fiscal woes that plagued it several years ago. In 2003, hampered by $1.4 million in debt and maintenance problems, the aquarium temporarily lost accreditation by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. Much of its luster has since been restored, however, with membership levels at 18,000 and visitors totaling 1.3 million annually. The last major new exhibit to open was the marine mammal center, in 2009.

Jo Blasi, a senior educator at the aquarium, said that while visitors may long remember their first close encounter with a playful stingray or bonnethead shark, they will probably be educated, too, about issues like endangered habitats and delicate ecosystems.

“People come to see the animals,’’ she said, “but this is also a great way to introduce the idea of conservation and habitat loss.’’

One visiting parent could not leave last week without offering advice on enjoying the touch tank: Bring along dry clothes, she said, because when cownose rays get frisky, they splash.

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.