Stingrays swim to the Great Northern Fair
Havre Daily News/Nikki Carlson
Dylan Hanson, 10, gently touches an Atlantic stingray as it glides across the bottom of a tank Wednesday afternoon at the Sealife Encounters of America's display of stingrays at the Great Northern Fair. Visitors of the free stage entertainment get to touch and learn more about the six Atlantic stingrays, that have had their barbs removed, Thursday through Sunday from noon until 10 p.m. during the fair. The stingrays take about 30-minute breaks every three hours.
Great Northern Fairgoers this year have a chance to see a slightly different model of stingray than the Chevrolet Corvettes they may see cruising the streets from time to time, a model brought in from beyond the East Coast.
Sealife Encounters of America is displaying six Atlantic stingrays at the fair, a popular exhibit in its first day, Wednesday.
"It's funny, " Carol Anne White, 4, said while touching one of the aquatic animals in the display. "It feels weird. "
She said as she was leaving she liked the exhibit, and when asked how the animals felt, she said, "Bumpy. "
Sarah White, her mother, said she also enjoyed the exhibit,
"I love it, " she said. "We don't have a lot of zoos, activities, in Montana for kids like this. They like to be able to experience this. "
The display was started by Joe Culver eight years ago and has become a popular exhibit around the country. The company has displayed the animals at amusement parks, exhibits and shows as well as fairs ranging from the Great Northern to the San Diego County Fair in California, and the Texas State Fair in Dallas to the Bangor State Fair in Bangor, Maine. Its website says a half-million people have seen the animals on display in the company's eight years.
That includes 35,000 guests in 10 days at the Western Idaho Fair in Boise, Idaho, and 18,000 in 10 days at the Houston Boat Show.
Attendant Annette Dirks, watching the display and answering guests' questions about the stingrays, said the show has been in almost every state.
She said the animals are quite safe.
"They are very docile. They usually lie on the bottom in the ocean, " Dirks said. "They're only aggressive if you step on them. "
The animals received notoriety in 2006 when Australian television personality Steve "Crocodile Hunter" Irwin died after a stingray barb punctured his heart while he was filming a documentary.
Dirks said his death was a rarity. Aside from the animals' docility, this stingray's barb passing through his ribs and puncturing his heart was a fluke, when it just as easily could have given him a painful but non-fatal cut on the arm or some other part of his body.
Stingrays have ribbed barbs, which can cause painful punctures and cuts, and their sting is toxic though not fatal. Dirks said soap and water will remove the toxin if someone is stung.
The Sealife Encounters website says the animals on display have had their defensive barb removed, which does not harm the animal and the barb grows back.
Dirks said the animals in the exhibit, fairly young stingrays, will be kept about a year then released back into to the wild or given to aquariums.
The animals in the display are about 10-inches to 14-inches wide, wingtip to wingtip, but Dirks said they can grow to be 30- to 40-inches wide. The Atlantic stingray can live to about 15.
Other stingrays grow to be much larger, and a relative, the manta ray, can grow to be 20-feet across and 25-feet long.
Along with the tank — which includes sand in the bottom under which the rays sometimes bury themselves — the Sealife Encounters display includes a video that talks about the stingrays, signs giving more information about the animals or talking about how to safely approach them in the display or in the wild, and an example of a large stinger and a pair of cowboy boots made from stingray hide.
The tank also has a spot in the back labeled as a rest area. Dirks said the animals learn that if they don't want to be touched, they can move to that spot and be left alone.
Dirks said the main work in caring for the animals is making sure the temperature stays in the proper range and that the saltiness of the water is maintained.
She said the display is popular wherever they take it.
"Our exhibit is educational, and a lot of people don't have the opportunity … to see aquatic life, " Dirks said.
Ryan Rowlatt, 9, said he had never touched a stingray before.
"They were cool …, " he said. "The sides were really soft, and down the middle was pokey. "
Ciara Donovan, 17, also enjoyed the exhibit.
"I wasn't expecting it, " she said.