Written by aquarists Audrey Santos and Sarah Tempesta

This past fall, New England Aquarium staff took on the biggest project for our Trust Family Foundation Shark and Ray Touch Tank since its construction in 2011.

The exhibit was emptied of all water and animals, renovated, and refilled with water and animals again. This was a huge undertaking that involved many different departments to work together, and we can now say that it was a huge success! But I’m sure you must be wondering:

Why was the touch tank shut down?

Over the last eight years, the touch tank has slowly been getting overgrown with a fouling anemone often referred to as aiptasia [ apptayzjah ]. These anemones are well known to home hobbyists and professional aquarium biologists alike. They are quite hardy, multiply quickly, and can be difficult to remove. For example, oftentimes when you try to scrub an aiptasia anemone away, the broken pieces simply settle and regenerate into even more aiptasia! Because these anemones can be an eyesore in an exhibit and a nuisance to the other animals living in the tank, we decided to shut down the touch tank to eradicate them.


You can see the elimination of the aiptasia in this timelapse video: 


After all the sharks and rays were removed from the tank, we shocked the tank (and thus the aiptasia) with a hypersalinity treatment. We added more than 12,000 pounds of salt to the tank, which more than doubled its normal salinity and eliminated the aiptasia.

The Shark and Ray Touch Tank is one of the most popular exhibits at the Aquarium. Here you can calmly reach your hand into the tank and touch the smooth skin of a stingray or the rough skin of a shark as they glide by. Bend down, and you can view these beautiful animals swimming through the water.


Where did all the sharks and rays go?

During our six-week renovation project, the sharks and rays took a South Shore vacation to our Quincy Animal Care Center. There, they were split between two holding tanks equipped with lots of habitat to make them feel at home. All of the cownose rays, leopard whiptail rays, and some sharks went into a 33,000-gallon tank, our biggest tank in Quincy. All of the smaller sharks and stingrays went into a 14,000-gallon tank. 

Aquarist Hannah Cutting in front of a ray tank in Quincy.
Aquarist Hannah Cutting stands in front of a ray tank in Quincy.

Everyone settled in well and were a delight to the Quincy staff and volunteers, who do not get the chance to work with these animals very often! We continued the shark training that had was being done in Boston. Our sharks adjusted quickly to their new surroundings and were swimming to their targets and hammocks in no time! It is important to maintain these behaviors as they minimize stress when handling the animals for exams and moves.


Aquarist Audrey Santos trains a female zebra bullhead shark in Quincy.


Kari Narhuminti target trains a male zebra bullhead shark in Quincy.

How did you move the animals back and forth?

The Aquarium has a truck designed for transporting animals from one place to another. It is equipped with a holding tank and lid, oxygen cylinders, water quality monitoring equipment, and a generator to supply electricity.

Aquarists gather around a male leopard whiptail ray in transport truck.

This allows us to safely drive our animals in a secure tank full of water while keeping water quality stable. So far, we have made the 30-minute trip between Boston and Quincy more than 20 times to move animals back and forth for this project. For moving animals between the truck and their tanks, we use both rolling bins and plastic bags full of water.

Aquarists Tori Babson and Jason Langshaw move a leopard whiptail ray out of the touch tank.

How does the tank look now?

The touch tank is now crystal clear with no aiptasia in sight! This project was a lot of work, but was worth it knowing that we have made significant improvements to our animals’ home. The touch tank is normally home to seven species of rays and five species of sharks. Our animals are still slowly making their way back from Quincy to Boston, but come by to check out who has moved back in so far!

Get an immersive look inside our newly reopened Shark and Ray Touch Tank with this interactive 360-degree video!

360° Video: Shark and Ray Touch Tank