Stingray Beach, an interactive exhibit where visitors can touch and feed ocean stingrays, opened Thursday at the Assiniboine Park Zoo.

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Stingray Beach, an interactive exhibit where visitors can touch and feed ocean stingrays, opened Thursday at the Assiniboine Park Zoo.

The attraction is housed in the zoo's rotating exhibit gallery near the butterfly garden. The stingrays, members of a group of fish that includes sharks and electric rays, can be found around the world in salt and freshwater.

Their habitat is a shallow, 1,300-square-foot pool filled with about two feet of filtered saltwater that is constantly monitored by zoo staff for temperature and chemistry.

There are 25 cownose rays, named for their forehead shape which resembles the nose of a cow, and two southern stingrays, which have flat, diamond-shaped bodies and flap their "wings" over sand to reveal prey. They originate from eastern North America.

Aquatic operations supervisor Marc Brandson feeding a stingray a jumbo shrimp Thursday.</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Aquatic operations supervisor Marc Brandson feeding a stingray a jumbo shrimp Thursday.

Guests can see and touch them for free (with park admission) but there is a $10 charge to feed them at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Tickets for the feeding experience can be purchased at the gift shop.

"The oceans are critically important and they're important to us here. At the (zoo), we're pretty far removed from the ocean and this is an opportunity for us all to get up close and personal with some of the ocean's fascinating and important creatures," said Chris Enright, the zoo's director of veterinary services and animal welfare.

He said stingrays are typically docile creatures and amenable to interaction with humans, but the exhibit is structured so the stingrays have the opportunity to swim away if they don't want human contact.

"Rays and their relatives, sharks, are often misunderstood. They are often friendly, inquisitive and engaging," Enright said. "The cownose rays are (considered social animals); they exist in schools and you'll see them swimming together. The southern rays, their behaviour is to hang out on the bottom of the ocean floor."

Grant Furniss, the zoo's senior director of animal care and conservation who officially opened the exhibit, said he hopes the exhibit will be "an unforgettable experience" for visitors that will bring them closer to issues related to oceans and wildlife conservation.

Chris Enright at the official opening Thursday.</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Chris Enright at the official opening Thursday.

At least one-quarter of ray species are threatened; the World Wildlife Federation considers rays to be a "priority species" whose "survival cannot be guaranteed by conserving their habitat alone." The international conservation organization says efforts to conserve priority species will help conserve other species that share their habitats and are vulnerable to the same threats.

"Stingray Beach gives us a very valuable opportunity to expand our conservation messaging, particularly around oceans," Furniss said.

"Oceans cover 74 per cent of the Earth's surface and they hold 94 per cent of the water on Earth and they contribute about half the oxygen on Earth. (They have) a huge effect on climate change. They're also home to some of the world's most fascinating and curious creatures and that's one of them that we have here today: stingrays."

People who fed the stingrays at the opening event were instructed to hold the food — 10-centimetre-long fish — "like an ice-cream cone" so the top half of the fish was sticking up.

"They swim over your hand; you're holding it (the food) like an ice-cream cone, and they just glide over top. They're lovely. They're not aggressive at all," said Laverne Dahlin, a zoo member who was among the first group to feed the stingrays. "There are no teeth, you don't feel anything really (when they take a fish). They're very, very gentle. They swim so gracefully.""

<p>8-year-old Xavi Monge pets a stingray in the aquatic tank at the new exhibit Thursday.</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

8-year-old Xavi Monge pets a stingray in the aquatic tank at the new exhibit Thursday.

Five-year-old Norah Jonker didn't want to feed a stingray, she reached her hand into the water to touch a few as they swam by.

"It was slimy," said Norah, who was with her mom, Brittany, and her three-year-old brother, Levi.

Xavi Monge, 8, was confident as he took his fish and plunged his hand right into the water to feed the stingrays. He was thrilled when a zoo worker gave another fish to him.

"Fun!" was his enthusiastic response to what it was like to feed a stingray.

Stingray Beach will be at the zoo for about a year. The zoo is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, including through the long weekend and on Victoria Day.

ashley.prest@freepress.mb.ca