Stingray, touched, beluga whales, admired; and new exhibit, explored. Not bad for a two-hour visit to the one and only Shedd Aquarium.

Yes, on a recent not-so-balmy evening, Kate and I braved the unseasonably nontropical temps for the aquarium’s new exhibit opening: At Home on the Great Lakes, aka, a major update of its historic Local Waters Gallery. And gladly so!

Part of the Waters of the World exhibit, the new Great Lakes section is all about the local love.
Part of the Waters of the World exhibit, the new Great Lakes section is all about the local love.

After a brief adventure in the Stingray Touch tent, we headed to the scenic Oceanarium to gawk at the belugas, er, hear the keynote speaker, former Canadian astronaut Julie Payette, share her views on the Great Lakes—from space. Admittedly, I was a little skeptical that the opening speaker was not a Great Lakes sustainability scientist—particularly when she herself asked, “What does an astronaut have to do with the Great Lakes, other than being born on the banks of the St. Lawrence River?” Exactly, I thought.

Well, turns out, going into space is a pretty swell way to put stuff in context…or, as she more eloquently put it: “When you extricate yourself, take a step back to see that we only have one world. It’s our only spaceship.” And so, this clearly seasoned traveler got us all thinking a little more big picture, with a slideshow of Great Lakes pics taken from space. With satellite images of our beloved lakes seared into our minds, and a sense of the significance of our collective presence on the planet, we made our way into the new hall.

Featuring more than 60 Great Lakes species, the interactive exhibit keeps things lively with info-packed touch-screens, a news monitor with real-time updates on Great Lakes conservation news, and a video story booth where you can basically become famous (you share your GL story, and Shedd puts it on their website and social media platforms for the world to enjoy).

Touching my first sturgeon! (Don't be jealous - you can do it too.)
Touching my first sturgeon! (Don’t be jealous – you can do it too.)

As a sucker for anything hands-on, I made a beeline to the new sturgeon pool, where you can pet the armor-like scales of native lake sturgeons, a prehistoric species that can live more than 100 years. You can take my word when I say it felt markedly different from the stingray—or, better yet, go and touch ’em both for yourself.

The greatest thing about this exhibit, though, is that it mixes that kind of hands-on fun with real food for thought. One big conservation topic the exhibit focuses on is ecological separation, a topic near and dear to us ever since we busted the myth that Asian carp aren’t that big a deal. By giving us real-life examples of some of the 180 species of Great Lakes intruders, like nonnative sea lamprey and Asian carp, we can all better grasp the challenges ahead—and possible solutions.

Overall, the exhibit does a bang-up job paying homage to one of the world’s real treasures. We know our Great Lakes provide us with drinking water. And we know they give us the opportunity to swim, boat, traipse along the beach. But how well do you really know them? Find out by planning your visit to the Shedd now.

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