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Shedd Aquarium offers behind-the-scenes shark feeding tour

  • Zebra shark in Wild Reef exhibit at Shedd Aquarium.
Zebra shark in Wild Reef exhibit at Shedd Aquarium. (Handout courtesy of Shedd…)
February 19, 2014|By Leonor Vivanco, @lvivanco | RedEye

Lucille and Brandi have a standing brunch date.

They're both on a strict diet. On the menu is squid and mackerel. It's taken two hours to prepare their food. And they're hungry.

Although the meal is restaurant-grade raw fish, they are not dining at a pricey River North seafood restaurant. Instead, the whitespotted guitarfish and sandbar shark eat poolside at the Shedd Aquarium.

Shedd visitors can meet Lucille, who is named after B.B. King's guitar, and Brandi among 30 other sharks and rays in a new behind-the-scenes feeding tour of the Wild Reef exhibit that began Sunday.

"I really like dispelling a lot of the myths they get from Hollywood. I think a lot of times they're expecting to see a feeding frenzy and I think they are surprised by the fact our animals are trained," said Lise Watson, Wild Reef collection manager.

The sharks swimming around the 400,000 gallons of man-made sea water are trained to recognize their feeding station by the shapes, like an oval or pentagon, placed into the water. Trainers rub wooden sticks together or tap the metal triangle to signal the dinner bell.

Training begins when the species arrives at the Shedd. Once the species is in a quarantined area, they learn to go from catching their food in the wild to getting their food from trainers and from eating live food to eating frozen food, Watson said. Then, trainers start introducing the location they want to feed the sharks and begin associating shapes with the feeding stations, she said.

"Since they are getting what they need from us, they don't have a need to go chasing down all their tank mates," Watson said.

When it's time to eat, fish are stuffed with multi-vitamins hidden behind gills, just as dog owners would give their pets medicine wrapped in cheese. Trainers then remove the fence around the pool, grab the fish with tongs and hold it out for the sharks to eat.

Not all sharks and rays are fed daily or get the same meal. Much of what they get is based on size and metabolism.

For example, Lucille, or Lucy as Watson calls her, gets just under a pound and a half of food every day because the 8-foot-long guitarfish is active and swims around all the time. Whiptail rays get a fish burrito with fish stuffed inside a squid for a quick feeding.

"We do have animals that are very picky eaters and their preferences can change throughout the year," Watson said. "My team and I have to really know these animals well and we prepare special foods just to make sure certain animals have those food items that they really like while still offering them a variety."

The tour features zebra sharks, a baby wobbegong, sawfish and what is called a "broadcast" feeding. Guests will slide on a pair of gloves and dig into a plastic container that looks like a fish parfait of chopped herring and clams and toss the food into the water for any of the fish in the exhibit.

The tour shows sharks may not be as scary as they seemed in movies like "Jaws."

"Sharks aren't really animals to be feared. They are to be respected and to really be cared for," Watson said.

Tour tickets cost $89.95 a person for the weekly Sunday morning tour including Shedd admission.

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