‘High-tech and high touch’: Aquarium provides interactive experiences

Elizabeth Phelan | Staff Writer

Aquariums are spaces infused with wonder, places of the surreal and the sublime. The St. Louis Aquarium, which opened on Christmas Day 2019, has a rich plethora of animals on display: a rare blue lobster; flocks of piranhas; sea dragons, slender and frond-like, drifting like exquisite aliens.

Photo by Curran Neenan

Nestled in the basement of Union Station, a former railway station, the aquarium has over 13,000 animals in 250,000 gallons of water. Large gears and steampunk-style columns remind visitors of the space’s railway history while also creating an atmosphere of magic and mystery. The opening hall features an enormous tank amid a vivid LED display screen; the tank houses dozens of bright discus fish and doubles as a functioning clock, showcasing the aquarium’s ethos of natural splendor meeting high technology.

The aquarium’s Executive Director Tami Brown described it as “high-tech and high touch,” giving visitors a number of opportunities to interact directly with animals. During my visit, I fed turtles strips of lettuce with a paper straw, touched the smooth scales of a snake and felt the prickle of a mantis shrimp as it hovered, spider-like, around my palm.

The largest touch tank contained cownose rays and leopard sharks, circling endlessly above a sandy surface. Touching these animals was startling in the most delightful way—the rays were friendly, almost puppyish. One darted up beneath my hand, completely surprising me, and other rays pressed their noses against the tank towards visitors.

In another haptic marvel, visitors can put their hands into a tank full of “doctor fish” (a species called the red garra, also known as nibble fish). Barely the length of my little finger, the fish eat dead skin cells off visitors’ hands. It was a deeply surreal sensation, as the fish seemed to vibrate around my hand like a freakish glove.

Not all of the fish are able to be touched; most are housed in large tanks called galleries, surrounded by kiosks with information about the species within the tanks. The aquarium’s first gallery is devoted to the aquatic species at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. It holds mustachioed catfish, leopard-spotted pikes and paddlefish, whose spectacular jaws balloon outwards as they drift through the olive-green water. The focus on the confluence is intentional. Brown noted how important the location of the St. Louis Aquarium is for its overall message of sustainability and stewardship.

“I hope that it gives everybody who lives in this region more pride for what’s in our rivers, and therefore a little bit more concern [in] taking care of the rivers and the fresh water,” Brown said. “Taking care of our river also means that we’re having an impact, a positive impact, on our oceans as well.”

The aquarium is heavily focused on conservation; Brown noted that many of the interactive features highlight ways to become more environmentally-conscious.

“I think we have a responsibility across the board to create a world where there’s better stewardship of our planet,” Brown said, explaining that every animal in the aquarium has been responsibly sourced according to the best practices outlined by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

While the Midwest may seem like a strange place to have a state-of-the-art aquarium, resplendent with sharks and piranhas, the allure of an aquarium is a universal phenomenon. It was deeply enchanting to watch parents lowering small children over a tank to touch a sea urchin’s purple spines or watching a grade schooler see their first shark.

With over 100,000 visitors so far, the aquarium has sold out every weekend it’s been open, and Brown encouraged students to purchase tickets, priced at $25 per adult, in advance on the website. The St. Louis Aquarium, still brand new, has already proven itself to be a captivating and enthralling experience, one well worth the visit.

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