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My Favorite Exhibit: Stingray Reef at Houston’s Downtown Aquarium

Shiners are baitfish. Small, typically silver in color and sporting a natural "slime coat." Anglers use them to attract bass, catfish, perch, trout and other game fish. And visitors to Houston's Downtown Aquarium can use them to interest and entice the resident stingrays. When I visited recently, the rays happily gobbled up the shiners I'd purchased, a half dozen of these graceful sea dwellers greedily jockeying for position just below my fingertips.


Stingray Reef is one of my favorite exhibits at the Downtown Aquarium. The rays seem nearly tame and appear to enjoy being petted gently by the human visitors gathered at their tank. And, of course, when those humans also have a supply of shiners, which can be purchased for a small fee, the rays get even friendlier. And by "friendlier," I mean splashier. Once food is introduced into the equation, the rays' usual gentle gliding movements turn into more of a flapping frenzy.

Yes, you can expect to get a bit damp when feeding the rays. But you can also expect to be completely mesmerized by these intelligent, beautiful creatures. Be sure to touch the rays with your flat open hand (fingernails can scratch, so avoid using fingertips). The best place to pet a ray is down the middle of its back. Their skin is soft to the touch, and it can tickle a bit when they take food from your fingers. (Don't worry, rays don't have teeth, so they can't bite you.)

In addition to the rays, there's so much more to see and do at the aquarium. The Shipwreck exhibit lets you step inside the sunken hull of a 17th century Spanish galleon and view a diversity of species from the world's oceans, including a giant pacific octopus. Youngsters will love the C.P. Huntington train, which chugs around the aquarium and through a clear tunnel that bisects a 200,000-gallon shark tank! And if you're not from around these parts, the Texas Bayou exhibit is a terrific way to acquaint yourself with the marsh and bayous of the Gulf Coast. Outside, you'll find amusement rides, including a Ferris wheel and a charming aquatic-themed carousel whose mounts range from dolphins to alligators to fearsome sharks.

Finally, if feeding the rays got you thinking about your own stomach, the aptly named Aquarium Restaurant can fill you to the gills (sorry, I couldn't resist). For starters, try the shrimp and crab dip, whose added poblano peppers give this appetizer a nice Texas twist. Among the main course seafood offerings are gulf snapper, fish tacos, crunchy fish and chips, and herb-crusted Atlantic salmon. Alas, there are no shiners.


Ways to Save on Downtown Aquarium Admission

Houston CityPASS tickets are a great way to visit the Downtown Aquarium and four additional top Space City attractions at a savings of 47%. Each Houston CityPASS ticket covers prepaid admission to Space Center Houston, Downtown Aquarium, Houston Museum of Natural Science, a choice between the Houston Zoo or the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and a choice between Kemah Boardwalk and the Children's Museum of Houston. Visit the CityPASS Travel Guide for information on hours, entry procedures, advance reservations and more.