NEWPORT, Ky. -- Two years ago, the Newport Aquarium's nonprofit partner the WAVE Foundation brought us sharks on wheels. In January, it rolled out the latest species to hit the road -- traveling stingrays. The launch of WAVE's one-of-a-kind mobile Ray Cart conveniently coincided with the debut of the aquarium's newest exhibit, Stingray Hideaway, which is scheduled to open in May.
"We consider ourselves the preview to the movie," said WAVE Foundation education curator Daniel Dunlap. "So we can go out into the community and this is the preview of what people can expect when they come to Newport Aquarium to touch the big rays in the bigger tank."
The stars of the show are a trio of 6- to 8 month-old male yellow stingrays named "Ray" Charles, Stevie "Ray" Vaughan and one whose name will be determined by a naming contest on WAVE's Facebook site. Growing to about 14 inches across, the diminutive species lives just about 40 kilometers off the Atlantic coast in warm, shallow waters, said AmeriCorp member and WAVE educator Caitlin Stanley.
The term yellow may be misleading, she said, as this variety often changes color to blend with its environment or communicate. Stanley said they chose a very common variety of stingray so regulations would allow them to be used for outreach.
"It's one of the one's we're able to bring out in the community," she said. "And people might even recognize these stingrays if they've been to that area too, which is pretty cool."
Like its predecessor, the mobile Shark Cart, the newest touch-tank is designed to mirror the stingray's natural habitat using saltwater heated to a toasty 75 to 79 degrees. An important design feature needed to be added: An acrylic lip to keep the curious little guys from liberating themselves.
"Stingrays will swim up a surface until they come out," Dunlap said. "We had to create a barrier so when they swim up and feel it they just move side to side and not up and out of the tank."
Taking the show on the road requires about 30 to 40 minutes of prep time, Dunlap said, which includes loading two heavy carts and equipment onto the WAVE Foundation van and transferring the rays into a specially designed cooler that can keep temperature regulated for up to five days. Such features are vital, he said, as sometimes they're on the road up to 10 hours.
"It's a lot of work to be able to transport aquatic animals around three states; we literally travel all over Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana," he said.
Since announcing the latest touring group, the ray van has been booked solid, scheduled to visit schools, libraries, senior centers, daycares, community events and festivals throughout the summer. Dunlap called kids' reactions to the touch-tank "priceless," as many have never been to a beach or even felt saltwater. And although the younger kids love to dive their hands into the water, he said the big kids are just as excited to reach in and touch.
"We've been to a couple of schools where the teachers have been so excited for our animals to be there, they'll push the kids out of the way to get to the front of the line," he said. "We like to say that our exotic animals don't discriminate based on age. They love everyone."
One of the most entertaining moments comes when people feel the rays for the first time, Stanley said. She said kids love them as their appearance is almost alien with their flat bodies, eyes jutting out from above and wide, gaping mouths and gills on their underside.
"In our first outreach, I had the kids come up to touch them and I didn't tell them how it feels -- they're actually covered in mucus, so they're super slimy," she said. "So the kids were touching them and freaking out."
While most people know of stingrays, Stanley said not much is known scientifically in terms of their territories or behaviors. Because they tend to be reclusive, it's difficult to track numbers to know if certain varieties are endangered.
She said it's important to connect kids to animals early, so as they grow older they'll continue to care.
"It's cool for us to be able promote the importance of protecting our environment and doing more research with these guys," she said. "I want to see if we can inspire the next kid to find out how we can track these guys and see what's going on."
Dunlap said he hopes that same message will resonate with decision makers when they travel to Washington, D.C., in May. The mobile Ray Cart will take center stage on the floor of Congress during a discussion on ocean conservation.
As ambassadors for their species, he said he hopes the stingrays will do what they do best -- charm, engage and enlighten everyone who comes in contact with them.
"When you're learning about that animal from one of our wonderful WAVE educators, and then you get to come up here and stick your hands in the water and touch that animal for the first time, the reaction is just amazing," Dunlap said. "And that's why what we do what we do."