Takeover Tuesday: Stingray Hideaway Edition

Takeover Tuesday features a “day in the life” of biologists at Newport Aquarium. Be sure to follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Hi, my name is Michelle. Thank you for joining me for this #TakeoverTuesday. I’ve worked at Newport Aquarium for more than 13 years.  During those 13 years, I have worked with every type of animal: mammals, birds, reptiles and fish. I am an Aquarist, and I work with saltwater fish and freshwater fish as well as some of our elasmobranchs. Elasmobranchs are a sub-class of cartilaginous fish, which includes all species of sharks, skates, and stingrays. Most of my time is spent in our new exhibit, Stingray Hideaway, which opened earlier this month.

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Aquarist, Michelle, has worked at Newport Aquarium for more than 13 years.

 

Cownose Rays have a high metabolism because they swim around so much, this translates into lots of food prep.  Food prep is a large part of my job as well as observing the animals.  Right now, they are fed 7 days a week at a little over a pound at each feeding. It takes about an hour every day to prep all of their food. Their favorite food is shrimp, but they will also eat clams, squid, herring, mackerel, silversides and ocean smelt.  During the feeding I have an opportunity to assess the health of the stingrays.  Sometimes we also hide their food throughout the tank as a form of enrichment for them, which stimulates them to hunt.

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Their favorite food is shrimp, but they will also eat clams, squid, herring, mackerel, silversides and ocean smelt.

A great way for us to share our passion for the animals we work with and take care of every day, is to educate the public. That’s why you’ll see biologists being interviewed on TV. For a short amount of time, we can bring you into their world and hopefully share with you how critical conservation is to the survival of that species.

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Live TV interview with Brandon Orr, from Local 12. Brandon helped feed the stingrays.

Stingrays are truly majestic animals, it is a joy to watch them glide through the water. In the new exhibit, guests can see so many aspects of their physical abilities. There are three types of stingrays in Stingray Hideaway: cownose, southern, and yellow stingrays. Some are even so memorable; the staff has already given them names.  We have Miss Piggy, she is always the first to come up to eat and she will eat a lot.  We also have Rambo Ann, when she comes over to eat she swims over very fast and rams into your hand to get at the shrimp. As well as the stingrays you will also have the opportunity to see and touch coral cat sharks and epaulette sharks.

Southern stingray

A southern stingray swims by the viewing window inside Stingray Hideaway.

The most memorable stingray for me has to be Finn, our baby cownose ray.  He was born here on March 3rd. When stingrays are born, they come out as little “burritos” and are ready to face the world.  They don’t need Mom or Dad to take care of them but they will hang around the group, or fever, of stingrays.  This allows them to learn from the group how to hunt and avoid predators.  Because I am such a Star Wars fan, yes, he was named after the Stormtrooper, Finn, in the Force Awakens.

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I hope that when our guests enter Stingray Hideaway they make a connection with these wondrous animals, they are truly unique and deserve not only our respect but our protection.  I want our guests to leave with a sense of understanding about how protecting their wild habitat is important and even the little things, conserving water and recycling plastics, done in Kentucky do make a difference to animals that call the East coast home.

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Thanks for joining me today. We hope to see you soon in Stingray Hideaway.

Transformation of Stingray Hideaway

A Hideaway for You… and for Stingrays, Too!
This is Part 2 of the Transformation of Stingray Hideaway. Read Part 1 here.

Everything is coming together so that Stingray Hideaway can be an interactive, tropical “hideaway” for all of our guests… and also for our stingrays!

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Cownose stingrays will be the exhibit’s highlight species. The exhibit was designed with them in mind.

Cownose stingrays are the exhibit’s highlight species, so the touch tank was designed specifically with them in mind. The design of the water flow and the rounded edges of the tank were created for them and the flat rays and fish that will be joining them in their new home. There is also going to be gravel at the bottom of the touch tanks, so the rays can burrow in and have their own hideaway if they want it.

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The 30-foot lit tunnel is the perfect size for small children (and for their parents to crawl in with them if they wish!)

As you walk through the construction site, you can see the various areas of the exhibit coming together, each designed for a specific age group. The walls of the touch tank change in height to accommodate younger kids, older kids, and kids-at-heart.

The 30-foot lit tunnel is the perfect size for small children (and for their parents to crawl in with them if they wish!). A shorter touch tank will house epaulette sharks and other small animals for the smallest aquarium visitors to get in on the interactive touch experience. There’s a little bit of everything, and something for everyone!

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Stingray Hideaway has touch experiences for everyone, including a smaller touch tank for our littlest guests.

“This is one of the most unique touch tanks I’ve ever seen,” Gibula said, “because it’s not just a touch tank, but an adventure and an experience for the kids. It gives kids a chance to explore on their own if they want to, to go into the tunnel and have an adventure while their parents watch from outside. Or, parents can go in with their kids if they want to!”

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When kids go through the finished 30-foot tunnel, they will be able to see cownose rays smiling down at them from the tank above!

Getting the Water Ready

One area of Stingray Hideaway that Gibula is most passionate about is a vitally important part of the tank that most people will never see: the water filtration system that sits underneath the exhibit.

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Before the water can go into the tanks upstairs, it has to cycle through the filtration system for 6-8 weeks. Here, a colony of good bacteria grows thanks to a vat of bioballs of ammonia, simulating fish waste in nature.

Much research and thought went into the design for the system. Gibula modified the existing filtration system from Canyon Falls as much as possible, but other equipment was added and created, too. There are brand-new protein skimmers for removing large organic waste, an ozone sterilization tower that is used to polish the water for animals and guests alike, sand filters to remove particulate, pumps for flow, a cooling and heating control system… and it’s all be primed and seeded weeks ahead of filling up the tanks upstairs.

“It takes six to eight weeks to cycle the water through all of the systems to prepare it for the animals,” Gibula said. Right now, that means recruiting beneficial nitrifying bacteria. The water is circulating in a giant 1000 gallon vat, and raining over the bioballs. These bioballs give the bacteria a large amount of surface area for them to colonize and concentrate. We “feed” the bacteria a chemical call ammonium chloride. This chemical addition to the bacteria, simulates as though there are animals in the water creating natural toxins / waste. As the bacteria concentrates, the waste products are removed from the system at a quicker and quicker rate. Eventually reaching a point safe point for the animals.

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You may have a small protein skimmer on your home aquarium, but Stingray Hideaway has two huge ones! They’re designed to clear away organic waste and pump up to 300 gallon per minute each.

“In our industry this is call inorganic cycling. It is a way to get the water conditioned for animals without putting any animal at risk.” Gibula adds. Newport Aquarium has been using variants of this technique since its inception.

The Big Day is Almost Here!

Thanks to Gibula and all of the behind-the-scenes efforts by so many people here at the aquarium as well as all the local Cincinnati contractors and suppliers who have helped along the way, the transformation of Stingray Hideaway gets a little closer to completion every day.

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From inside the 30-foot tunnel, kids of all ages will be able to look up to see cownose rays smiling and waving at them from above.

There are three things Gibula looks forward to seeing with regard to a new exhibit build. First is when the final fill happens and the water is running in the system. Second is when the animals are added to the exhibit and are doing as well or better than expected. Third, is the day he gets to sit in street clothes and watch family after family playing, learning, and gaining a respect for our planet’s amazing diversity, “Seeing their expressions, laughing together and wondering if what Newport Aquarium built may have inspired the next Sylvia Earle, Eugenie Clarke, Paul Watson or Jacques Cousteau,” Gibula said.

That third day is Gibula’s favorite moment, main motivation and mission for doing what he does. And that day is getting closer and closer—stay tuned!