photo: courtesy shedd aquarium

Heeere, little stingrays.

For those who want to break the typical museum's look-but-don't-touch rules, the Shedd Aquarium has a new outdoor, seasonal exhibit for you. The only catch? You're touching a bunch of stingrays.

Appropriately named Stingray Touch, the exhibit features around 40 cownose and yellow stingrays in a 18,000-gallon habitat beneath a tent on the south terrace. 

The staff invited me over for a preview pet yesterday. I didn't immediately see any rays in the 30-inch deep pool, until Michelle Sattler, collections manager of Stingray Touch, dipped a few delicious chunks of squid tentancles and fish heads into the water. A wave rippled through the water at the opposite end of the habitat, and soon two rays glided up to take Sattler's bait. A couple of rays quickly turned into a school as the group realized there was food in the pool.

The rays, with no regard for each other's personal space, swam on top of each other in their determined quest for chum. During the frenzy, several rays were boosted too far from the water and began to beat their fins rapidly, splashing delighted visitors with salt water.

It might sound like a scary thing to touch something with "sting" right there in its name, but this isn't my first tango with stingrays. Somewhere in the ocean off Grand Cayman is Stingray City, a sandbar where you can snorkel and wade in three to five feet of water with southern stingrays. Despite being completely wild, they're used to human touch after years of interactions with fishermen. The rays hear the sound of approaching motorboats and flock to the area hoping for a meal of fresh fish guts.

There, in the middle of the Caribbean, I felt the rays' soft, white bellies, their wings flapping against my legs and the odd sensation of their vacuum-like mouths sucking chum from my hand. I also remained acutely aware of their barbed tails. But here, in the middle of Chicago, the barbs are clipped—don't worry, Sattler says its just like clipping fingernails. Despite being tamed, I'm reluctant to get too fresh with the rays under the staff's watchful eyes. 

The rules of Stingray Touch are pretty simple. Rinse your hands before entering the exhibit. Wash them as you exit. Keep your palms flat and horizontal to the water while touching the rays' backs. Don't pull their tails. 

I tentatively dip my hand just under the water's surface, keeping it flat as can be. Sattler notices my timidity and encourages me to stretch out more. With this license, I really cop a feel on the next passing ray. Its bovine nose bumps my fingers, looking for chum, and I let my hand slide over its back as it glides away. It's slimy but gritty, like someone sprinkled it with ground pepper. Sandpaper comes to mind.

In the words of six-year-old Asa Kahle, the stingrays are "gooshy." Asa and his sister, Quinn, 8, giggle with each touch of the slippery creatures. Their mom, Suzanne, is a member of the Shedd and took the day off to enjoy all of the exhibits with her children, but the trio linger at Stingray Touch. Quinn looks over at the shy yellow rays, and says, "I wish I could touch the ones that look like salami." She still prefers sea turtles anyway.

It's not swimming with stingrays in the Caribbean, but Stingray Touch is an exhibit that's fascinating in its simplicity: A giant pool full of about 40 stringrays that you can actually pet. With this level of interaction, the exhibit doesn't get old quickly.

"It's totally immersive and sensory," Sattler says. "If it's sensory, you're going to remember it."

Best of all, you don't have to take three flights and a boat ride to touch the stingrays—just hop aboard the #146 bus.

Stingray Touch opens at the Shedd Aquarium today, and is planned to last through Fall 2013 (weather permitting). Check here for pricing info.