New Great Lake exhibit opens at Shedd Aquarium
BY MEENAKSHI DALAL Staff Reporter June 11, 2013 5:26PM
Brant Batteau, 11, pets a sturgeon in the exhibit at the Shedd Aquarium. June 11, 2013. | Alex Wroblewski~Sun-Times
Updated: July 13, 2013 6:35AM
Two-year-old Carson Bobek squealed, then recoiled as he plunged both hands into the icy water exclaiming — “Too far!”
He gestured to a 4-foot, toothless black fish that slowly lumbered by and carefully stuck near the gravel-lined bottom of the 1,440 gallon tank Tuesday at the Shedd Aquarium’s newly revamped Great Lakes exhibit, “At Home on the Great Lakes.”
A second, then a third fish, called sturgeons, swam past — giving Carson and his fellow “sturgeon-petters” another chance to stroke the back of the Great Lakes’ prehistoric fish.
Afterward, Carson, who was with his family, giggled and said the exhibit was “fun.”
In the exhibit, which opened over the weekend, there also were roughly 60 other species, interactive information on various species from the Great Lakes and a story booth allowing visitors to self-record their personal impressions of the Great Lakes.
The sturgeon, which grows up to nine feet in length, was the oldest species on display.
The sturgeon’s tank is shaped like a small lake with curved edges. Its sides are made of artificial-appearing rock, as well as two sections of clear glass, allowing the public to crouch and see the fish at eye-level, or stand and reach directly into the tank to pet one.
On Tuesday, a Shedd employee stood protectively at one end of the tank directing visitors to thoroughly rinse their hands up to their elbows at one of the two sinks connected to the tank before reaching into the water, which is kept at a chilly 63 degrees.
The announcer instructed guests over a microphone to extend two fingers and place their arms into the water. When a sturgeon ventured close enough, they could run their fingers along the slimy but hard back of the fish.
At first glance — the spine of the prehistoric fish appeared to be clearly visible. Its back has dark rectangular sections creating a raised, almost stitched look.
But senior aquarist Kurt Hettiger said what appears to be a spine is actually the prehistoric version of scales, creating some texture for the otherwise entirely smooth body of the fish.
There are three sturgeons in the tank available for petting. Two others will eventually be rotated in, giving the currently displayed fish a break. The fish don’t have names, but rather four to six digit numbers for identification.
Though the exhibit is new, the five fishes are long-term Shedd residents.
Hettiger said he’s cared for them for 19 years, noting they may have well begun life in the aquarium earlier.
But who really wants to pet one?
On a day when admission is free for Illinois residents, it seemed like everyone. The packed exhibit had a quick turnover rate as families and groups of children at summer day camps wound around the tank, stuck their hands in and jerked back, or adventurously left their arms in for additional strokes, before moving to examine the next fish.
The goal behind the touch-exhibit is to connect the public with nature, says Roger Germann, executive vice president of the Shedd Aquarium.
“We’re much more urban people now, so to be able to touch an iconic Great Lakes [creature] like a sturgeon helps create a bond,” Germann said. “Everyone just thinks animals in the lakes are brown and yellow small fish.”