APOLLO BEACH — Late last year, 21 native Floridians swam into a 600-gallon transport truck, bound for their newest winter home on the other side of Tampa Bay.
A dozen members of the Florida Aquarium's staff, including a veterinarian, accompanied them on the journey. These were, after all, very important residents.
The 13 cownose stingrays, four southern stingrays and four horseshoe crabs are now settled into their state-of-the-art tank at the Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach.
The rays spent their summer in a touch tank at Tropicana Field, delighting fans who came out to see their home team play some ball.
But after the peanuts and Cracker Jack ran out, the real rays had nowhere to go.
More than a year ago, the environmental team at Tampa Electric tossed around ideas on how to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the viewing center, which they own and operate.
"What about the rays?" someone said.
The new stingray exhibit at the center, including a 10,000-gallon tank, two-story life support system, and 24-hour monitoring access via computer or smartphone, will give visitors an uncommon look at local wildlife.
The unseasonably warm winter weather has translated to fewer sightings of the manatees who usually gather at TECO's Big Bend power plant.
So it was a good time for something new.
But wait: aren't stingrays dangerous? Officials often advise Florida visitors to do the "stingray shuffle" at the beach. In fact, stingrays are highly trainable and love interaction with humans, according to Mike Terrell, Director of Animal Husbandry at the aquarium.
"The best way to dispel myths is to get people safely interacting with the animals," he said. "If you can touch them, learn about them, and connect with them, you're going to want to protect them."
The ones at the new exhibit slid right up the sides of their new tank, poking their snouts above the surface, vying for attention.
Strict instructions remind visitors to use only two fingers when touching the rays.
The four biologists responsible for the rays' care spend time learning each animal's personality; some are motivated by food, and some want to be touched, said aquarium educator Natasha Cangelosi.
When it's time to transport them between homes, the rays simply swim into a net and staff move them to the truck one at a time using a large wheeled transport. They travel with other rays, and their stress levels are monitored continuously. Aquarium staff use color-coded gloves to "ask" the rays to come to them.
"The whole idea is to use common sense, compassion and understanding of what the animal wants and provide it, with no negative repercussions if they don't respond correctly," Terrell said. "We're meeting them on their level."
The rays eat squid, capelin and smelt, about 25 pounds of food a week. The center, which is also supported by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, currently offers hands-on environmental conservation classes for school groups and summer camps.
Future projects include a sea turtle hospital and greenhouses that grow coral.
"I think when people come here, they will get a sense that we're more than just a building that takes care of animals," Terrell said. "We have an impact outside of these walls."
He recalled that on the exhibit's opening day, one child didn't hesitate to touch a ray, prompting gasps of delight from his classmates, who all followed suit.
"It's that unexpected engagement that they walk away from and remember for their rest of their lives."
Contact Libby Baldwin at lbaldwin@tampabay,com. Follow her at @LibBaldwin