Get a feel for sharks

Visitors will get the opportunity to pet four species of sharks or stingrays at the South Carolina Aquarium’s Shark Shallows exhibit.

It’s one thing to get up close and personal with a shark in the water. It’s another to touch it.

The bonnethead feels like rubber, 3 feet long, gliding by the fingers. The hefty, 5-foot-long nurse shark feels like sandpaper lounging on the bottom. A cownose ray feels slick and rises to the fingers like a puppy preening to be petted.

For 2-year-old Virginia Moore of Charleston, it was all a little much at first. Told she could reach over the glass wall to pet one of the big fish in the swimming pool-size tank, she shrank back, wide-eyed, against her mom. But as shark after shark slipped peacefully past, she pulled up her sleeve.

“Funny,” she said, like weird, about how it felt.

Shark Shallows opens May 9 at the South Carolina Aquarium, the next “big thing” in a movement to feature exhibits where visitors interact with marine species. The first sizable marine-creature outdoor exhibit, it’s designed to be another crowd-pleaser as the aquarium revamps, battling stagnant attendance after 15 years in business.

The new marquee attraction — a $5 million, first-floor hospital and exhibit that will make the aquarium primarily about the cherished, threatened, native-species sea turtles — is scheduled to start construction in September and open in 2016.

The ideas for the new round of exhibits came from guests’ feedback, said Kevin Mills, aquarium president.

“We know what they’re looking for is closer interaction with the animals as well as the staff,” he said. “We keep finding ways to engage the public. It’s good for our business, obviously.”

The aquarium mission, though, is to promote conservation, Mills said. Showcasing often-declining marine species on site can heighten awareness of the value of their wild counterparts. The vilified shark — more than 100 million of which are killed by humans each year — is a good example.

“If we can attract people to the aquarium who come away with a new appreciation for a misunderstood species, who walk out of here asking what they can do about the species in the wild, we know we’ve done our job,” he said.

Touching sharks and rays fascinated a few small trial groups of “sneak peek” members’ children on Thursday, while other visitors craned over the gate trying to get a look.

The 20,000-gallon, kidney-shaped pool where the creatures swim is out on the main floor deck overlooking Charleston Harbor, giving it a marine ambience similar to an eternity pool.

Five bonnetheads, hammerhead-type sharks, share the pool with the big nurse shark, 28 cownose rays and three larger Southern stingrays — all native Lowcountry species. They are placid and even curious about the attention they get from higher-order species, the rays in particular stopping to gape and holding place while they are touched.

They didn’t bother Virginia, who quietly told herself, “Shark,” as she approached. Asked why she decided to touch one, she said, “I did it for Momma.” Sarah Moore, Momma, just beamed.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744 or @bopete on Twitter.