By LOIS KINDLE
Visitors at the Tampa Electric Manatee Center got a special treat last Thursday when its new Stingray Touch Experience tank opened on site.
Young and old alike appeared fascinated by the 13 cownose and two southern stingrays swimming at will across the newly constructed 10,000-gallon, 600-square-foot tank. The exhibit will now be the winter home for the stingrays, which normally reside in the Tampa Bay Rays’ outfield touch exhibit at Tropicana Field in the summer.
“We didn’t even know about the rays’ tank,” said Jennifer Zigre, of Bradenton, as she ate lunch at the center’s South Shore Café with her grandkids, Chase, 7, and Ashlyn, 5. “We came to see the manatees and visit the center and were pleasantly surprised.”
Although the children had the option of physically petting the rays on their wings, Zigre said they chose not to.
“I think it’s great the tank has little windows that kids can peer into and see the rays at eye level,” she continued. “Both of my grandchildren enjoyed watching them swim around.”
About 50 people at a time are permitted to gather around the tank at any one time. Once each hour, the rays, which are fish, are given a 10- or 15-minute rest break. It’s a protocol established by The Florida Aquarium to keep them at their best, said Rob Lamke, the aquarium’s promotions manager.
“The space is large enough for them to move around freely,” he said.
So do the rays like being petted?
“Obviously, we don’t really know what they’re thinking; we don’t speak stingray,” said a smiling Natasha Cangelosi, an on-site educator for The Florida Aquarium. “But (judging) by their behavior, they don’t seem to mind.”
Two aquarium representatives will always be on hand during the viewing center’s hours of operation to monitor the crowd’s interaction with the rays and answer visitor questions.
“TECO has been a wonderful partner of ours for years, and we’re excited to work together on this new guest experience that will educate and connect people with the natural environment,” said Thom Stork, The Florida Aquarium’s president and CEO, in a press release. “They continue to be a strong community supporter of the aquarium and our commitment to protect and restore the blue planet starting right here in Tampa Bay.”
Manatee Viewing Center officials are equally as pleased.
“Having the touch tank here gives our visitors another fun, interactive and educational experience,” said Jamie Woodlee, the Manatee Viewing Center’s senior environmental technician over operations. “And like all the other exhibits here, it’s free.”
The following information was supplied by either Lamke or Brian Gallaher, spokesmen for the Florida Aquarium:
• The water in the touch tank is kept at 78 degrees. The oxygen, temperature and pump filtration status is accessed in real time by the aquarium’s animal care team via a web application, 24/7. An aquarium team of biologists and a veterinarian will provide 24-hour care for the animals.
• The 13 cow nose rays originally came from the Gulf of Mexico. The two southern rays were born under human care.
• The rays were transported from Tropicana Field in a large, 600-gallon transport carrier in a large box truck in two trips from Tropicana Field under the supervision of Mike Terrell, The Florida Aquarium’s director of animal husbandry, a team of biologists and an on-site veterinarian.
• The stingrays receive a scheduled medical exam, and their stingers are clipped off much like fingernails.
• The rays will eat about 100 total pounds of chopped smelt, squid and capelin per week (twice daily except for Monday and Friday, when they will eat once), and a weekly dose of vitamins.
• Stingrays are closely related to sharks. As cartilaginous fish, they’re supported by skeletons of cartilage instead of bones. They detect prey with sensors in their mouths called ampullae of Lorenzini.
• Cownose rays can grow to a width of three feet; southern rays, five feet.
The Stingray Touch Experience is a key part of the Florida Conservation and Technology Center shared by The Florida Aquarium, TECO and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“It’s a great tool for engaging the public,” Lamke said. “Stingrays are very friendly and highly identifiable. They’re a huge draw. They enable us to showcase many of the other conservation efforts in which we’re involved.”
“This new experience offers the Manatee Viewing Center another way to educate guests about the natural environment and connect them with the species (that) make their home in Tampa Bay and rely on a healthy Tampa Bay ecosystem,” he said.