Feeding the sharks at the Shedd Aqaurium: a review of our extraordinary experience

Feeding the sharks at the Shedd Aqaurium: a review of our extraordinary experience
Black tip reef sharks at the Shedd Aqaurium ©Shedd Aquarium / Brenna Hernandez

Welcome back to Shark Week on Tween Us, designed to get you in the spirit for Shark Week on the Discovery Channel, which starts on August 10th. Today's installment is my very favorite.  We were lucky enough to go as a family to feed the sharks at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.

My daughter and I have been going to Shedd since before her first birthday. We were recently  able to go on the Shark Feeding Tour, which takes guests behind the scenes at the Wild Reef exhibit. We thought we had seen a lot there in the past decade, but we had never been behind the scenes, and it was an entirely new experience.

To be honest, I was a bit apprehensive about shark feeding. I'm a little scared of sharks. It's not rational, I know, but, well, Jaws. I admit, I let Hollywood influence me. (Hangs head in shame.)

Researching some facts about sharks helped me feel a bit better, as I didn't realize how many of them were little (as in under 3 feet long) but I was a little nervous when we arrived at the aquarium. My husband was pretty excited and my tween was somewhere in between.

By the end of the tour of the Wild Reef, however, my tween, my husband and myself knew a whole lot more about sharks and decided we are all pretty big fans of them.

That doesn't mean I didn't catch my breath when I first saw this guy, Ginsu, the green sawfish.

©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez

©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez

He is 13 feet long, and about half of that is the saw part of the sawfish.

Whoa.

And I'm not the only one who thinks "whoa" because the murmur of other guests as he swims past sounds pretty similar.

Our tour guide, Dylan, gave us a great overview of the Wild Reef, talking about the coral and sea stars at the start, pointing out some other interesting fish along the way, and then introducing us to Ginsu and friends. He also introduced us to a guitarfish, which looks like a shark but is really a ray, and explained how they all co-exist.

Guitarfish

©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez

Our guide also told us about the life of the zebra shark, who looks more like a leopard than a zebra and is very easy to train.

Zebra shark

©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez

It was then time to go behind the scenes and see the other side of the 400,000 gallon tank.

Amid the cavernous space, it was a few sheets of paper passed around that first grabbed our attention. One was the feeding schedule and the other was the menu, which varied by shark (or ray). They are all fed only restaurant-quality fish. The sharks are eating as well, if not better, than as you and I are.

Then we got to see the aquarists feed the larger sharks and rays.

©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez

©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez

Each kind of fish has its own sound (like a dinner bell) and sign shown in the tank to indicate that it is feeding time. It was also interesting to see how meticulously they noted who ate what and how much.

Other animals would express interest but had to wait their turn. The staff member doing the feeding would just lift the food out of the water, the line jumpers would swim away, and the food was given to the intended recipients.

The Shedd staff explained that animals are not punished and that undesirable behavior, such as trying to take someone else's lunch, is not acknowledged and certainly not rewarded.

It made me think of parenting and how sometimes the best reaction is no reaction.

We also learned on our shark feeding tour that sharks have their own priorities. The sandbar sharks were in the middle of mating season. They were interested in only one thing, and it was neither eating nor impressing their guests.

That's just one factor that makes a tour unique - there are a number of different factors that influence the sharks and rays, and no two tours are the same.

Black tip reef sharks at the Shedd Aqaurium ©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez

Black tip reef sharks at the Shedd Aqaurium ©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez

One very special part of our tour was when an aquarist candled a fertilized shark egg. Candling an egg involves holding a strong flashlight behind the egg, which is approximately the size of a softball, making it possible to see the shark embryo swimming around inside of it.

It was a truly incredible sight.

That doesn't happen on every tour, we were just very lucky. As said above, each tour is different. (They may have felt sorry for us that some of the sharks were more interested in each other than food.)

Our tour moved on to the time for us, the visitors, to do some feeding. That involved tossing fish in to the water and my tween may have been a bit squeamish about it, but she did it.  It wasn't nearly as scary as I thought it would be.

We were not responsible for the nourishment of the really big sharks, that was handled by staff, and that was fine by me. Feeding this way was much more up my alley.

The tour is 60 minutes, and the amount of information crammed into that hour is remarkable, as are the sharks.

It was a great way to delve deeper (pun intended), gain a new perspective on a place we love and to learn more about animals that were a bit out of our usual comfort zone. The minimum age for the tour is 10, and guests ages 10-15 must be accompanied by a participating adult. It was exciting to do an activity that is for tweens and those older. My daughter was excited to be old enough to enter the inner sanctum of the Wild Reef.

The Shark Feeding Tour is one of the Shedd's Extraordinary Experiences. It costs $89.95 for adults; $80.95 for children; $54.00 for members. Other experiences include a penguin encounter, beluga whale encounter and being a trainer for the day and costs for each of those vary. While that's not cheap, it does include admission to all exhibits, including the special exhibit Jellies, and a ticket to the next available aquatic show. And feeding the sharks at the Shedd Aquarium isn't something you get to do every day.

You can find information about visiting the Shedd here.

Disclosure: The Shedd gave me and my family free tickets for the shark feeding tour. All opinions and fears (rational and otherwise) are our own. We had so much fun at the Shedd that we went back on our own with family members visiting from out of town a few weeks later. My toddler niece isn't older enough for the Extraordinary Experiences just yet, but I'm excited to take her to the Penguin Encounter in a few years.

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: 7 fascinating facts about sharks

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