The stingrays have come back to Brookfield, and this time they’ve brought friends-sharks!

Last year “Stingray Bay” opened on Brookfield Zoo’s East Mall. For the first time, zoo visitors could actually pet stingrays as they “flew” by in the 16,000-gallon pool full of salt water.

At that time, Stuart Strahl, president and CEO of the Chicago Zoological Society, revealed that in 2008 the rays might be back, possibly with small sharks, too. And his prediction has come true.

On Saturday “Sharks! at Stingray Bay” opened to visitors. Despite intermittent sprinkles of rain, chilly breezes, and a 40-degree temperature, the exhibit’s opening day appeared to be a resounding success.

This was also Girl Scout Day at the Brookfield Zoo, and hundreds of scouts turned out to interact with the rays, while also looking for the small sharks and the horseshoe crabs. At 11 a.m., when the Girl Scout parade began, several scouts remained, instead, with the rays.

With 150 to 200 guests were gathered around the pool Saturday morning. It looked like Stingray Bay was, again, going to be a very popular attraction.

Andre Copeland, the interpretative programs manager for the Chicago Zoological Society, thought so, too.

While stingrays alone drew plenty of people to the zoo in 2007, the addition of sharks-of the small variety-has added a new dimension to the exhibit.

“Our 4 white-spotted bamboo sharks and 4 nurse sharks are pretty docile animals that stay close to the bottom of the pool, or if they’re in their natural environment, to the bottom of the ocean,” said Andre Copeland, the interpretative programs manager for the Chicago Zoological Society. “They don’t eat large mammalian prey, like the great white sharks do. Our sharks tend to eat crustaceans, like small lobsters, crabs, clams, oysters, and that sort of thing.”

Crabs? What about the horseshoe crabs in the pool? Copeland had the answer.

“The sharks don’t eat the horseshoe crabs, which are far too large for them,” he said. “The crabs have their own ‘suits of armor’ that these smaller sharks cannot penetrate.”

Horseshoe crabs, by the way, are known by their Latin name of limulus polyphemus and come from waters off the eastern seaboard of the United States, the Yucatan peninsula and Mexico.

Their maximum size is up to 24 inches, and they live on a diet of clams and worms. Interestingly enough, they are more related to spiders than to crabs. Their “horseshoe” name comes from the way their bodies are shaped.

“We have four horseshoe crabs: two larger adult ones, and two juveniles,” explained Copeland. “It’s safe to touch the crabs. I’ve seen a few young ladies touching this one here, who is just kind of sitting on the bottom of the water, hanging out. And here, one of the juveniles is taking a piggy back ride on the back of the adult one.”

The biggest one they had now was about 36 to 48 inches in diameter and weighed upwards of 3 pounds.

The stingrays are able to be touched because they have had their barbs clipped back, so no one could be hurt. Asked about this issue of shark safety, Copeland said they’re harmless.

“We have done nothing with the sharks,” Copeland said. “Since these animals aren’t large mammalian eaters, they pose no threat to humans, whatsoever. The sharks are totally safe to touch, if they come to within range.

“These small sharks are shy creatures. Right now they are under the waterfall, but people have touched them, previously.”

Last year there were around 35-40 stingrays in the pool, swooping back and forth in the water.

“When we are at full swing, we’re probably going to have about the same amount, maybe a couple more,” Copeland said. “To give you an idea, last year, we had three southern stingrays. Right now, we have seven of them, and we have 18 cownose stingrays. But when we’re in full swing this summer, we’re probably going to have close to 26 cownose stingrays and 10 southern stingrays.”

Zoo guests can still feed the rays at certain times, just as before. An additional charge of $1 is made, and a small paper cup of fish pieces is presented to the guest, who can hold a piece in the water at an angle and between middle fingers.

The rays will then “smell” the fish through the water, and come to suck it away, like a living vacuum cleaner. The sharks usually don’t come out during the feeding times and neither do the crabs.

On Saturday, the entire length of the pool was lined with kids, who lay on their bellies and reached out to drag their fingers along the backs of the rays as they flapped their “wings” in the water.

Several rays nearly had head-on collisions as they zipped along, but they always managed to slide above or below without incident. As always, the zoo cautions guests not to pick up the rays, even the small ones. They are extremely slippery anyway. And they can be very heavy.

How does it feel to touch a stingray?

Emma Wood, who came to the zoo here with her uncle, Nick Fiascone, all the way from Oklahoma City said, “It felt like, soft, and like, slimy,” she laughed nervously.

Emma’s sister, Madeleine, said the stingrays felt slimy, too, and further revealed that she and Emma were two of triplets, so there had to be another girl around somewhere. The third sister, Whitney, answered that the rays felt “rubbery.”

Over on the other side of the pool, John Kerr, from New Lenox, had been able to touch one of the crabs.

It felt “like touching a stingray, only harder.”

His son John Jr., had touched a stingray, and pronounced that they were “slimy,” echoing the opinions of the two girls in the Wood family.

It truly was a day for the kids, here. They were literally hopping with excitement, shouting and laughing. The noise level was loud and fairly steady at all times, and probably even the rays, sharks and crabs were aware of it.

There have been a few changes made to the area around the pool, but not to the pool itself.

“At the west end of the pool,” said Copeland, “we had concerns of small children and people in wheelchairs not being able to see the rays as well, so across that entire end of our pool we built an elevated rise, a gradual incline, not a step at all. It just seems like part of the floor. We’ve also added decorations and more roving naturalist staff members to answer questions.”

The exhibit will run through Labor Day, Sept. 1.