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Aquariums: Please do touch the rays

The tragic loss of the beloved "Crocodile Hunter," Steve Irwin, killed by a stingray's barb, has raised many questions about the graceful sea creatures.

It may be a good time to visit an aquarium to learn more about them, as well as other remarkable and potentially dangerous animals that roam the seas.

At the Tarpon Springs Aquarium, interest in the ray touch tank has soared since Irwin's death, said Scott Konger, a marine biologist who owns the 6,400-square-foot facility that opened in 1990.

"People are much more curious now," he said. "They want to know where the stinger is and how it happened. Some people think stingrays shoot their barbs out; they don't. And they don't go around deliberately sinking them into people."

Here, the barbs - bonelike spears several inches long with pointed tips and serrated edges - are removed every six months for the safety of aquarium visitors. Just like fingernails, they regenerate.

A few of the rays in this tank had pink spots atop their tails, indicating that they had recently been trimmed.

Konger said dying from a stingray attack is so rare it is "like being struck by lightning."

As of 1996, 17 people worldwide had died of stingray barb injuries, according to Surf Life Saving Queensland, a beach safety organization.

"They aren't aggressive; most stings are defensive," Konger said. "They are protecting themselves, and it's usually when people step on them."

Tye Deyo, 7, of Cape Coral was eager to pet the flat, silky-smooth creatures as they flapped their pectoral wings through the 80-degree water.

"I really like stingrays," he said. "They are fun to play with when they don't have their stingers."

Tye said he watched his favorite khaki-clad TV star "almost every day."

"I'm sad that he died and surprised because he was trained so well," he said.

Apparently, Irwin was following a fleet of stingrays on Australia's Great Barrier Reef when one turned and struck. Irwin pulled out the toxin-coated barb and died moments later.

Konger said Irwin was killed by a bull ray, about the size of the Southern stingray, found in the Gulf of Mexico.

At the Tarpon Springs Aquarium, visitors can witness shark and alligator feedings, view a 14-foot, 90-pound Burmese python, and learn that the jaws of nurse sharks can exert 3,000 pounds of bone-crushing pressure.

But the nurse sharks in the 120,000-gallon saltwater tank have their cute and cuddly side, too.

Teddy, the male, likes to roll over and get a tummy rub from the diver.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: The Tarpon Springs Aquarium is at 850 Dodecanese Blvd., near the Sponge Docks. It features a 120,000-gallon reef tank, feeding shows, hands-on exhibits and touch pools where visitors can pet and feed rays and small sharks.

HOURS: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

SHOWS: A 30-minute narrated dive show features a scuba diver feeding the inhabitants of the main aquarium. Times are 11:30 a.m. and 1, 2:30 and 4 p.m. Alligators are fed at 12:30 and 3:30 p.m.

TICKETS: $5.25, $4.50 for seniors and $3.25 for children. Group rates are available.

INFO: Call (727) 938-5378 or visit www.tarponspringsaquarium.com.

ANOTHER OPTION

WHAT: Clearwater Marine Aquarium is at 249 Windward Passage, just off the Memorial Causeway on the way to Clearwater Beach. The nonprofit organization rescues, rehabilitates and releases injured animals and emphasizes public education and marine research. In addition to a stingray touch tank, there are numerous presentations with dolphins, sea turtles, otters and other sea life.

HOURS: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday; 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.

TICKETS: Adults $9, children (3 to 12) $6.50, group rates available.

INFO: Call (727) 441-1790 or visit www.cmaquarium.org.

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