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Want to pet a shark? Aquarium of Niagara will make that happen

Always wanted to pet a shark or a stingray?

The Aquarium of Niagara will be the place to go by 2020.

The Niagara Falls attraction plans to construct a nearly $1.4 million interactive touch pool near its entrance, giving visitors the chance to reach into the water and touch one of the aquarium's white spotted bamboo sharks or a stingray.

A bamboo shark is only about 2 feet long when fully grown. But how many people can say they've touched any type of shark?

"We've carefully vetted the selection of animals for this project to keep everyone safe," said Gary K. Siddall, the aquarium's executive director. "These guys are bottom-dwelling sharks. You're more likely to get a hickey than a bite."

Alyssa Shepherd tends to a bamboo shark pup at the Aquarium of Niagara on Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Bamboo sharks are "more docile in temperament" than great white or bull sharks, Siddall said. They eat fish but tend to inhale their prey rather than chomp it.

The stingrays will have 2-foot wingspans, Siddall said.

All contact with the sharks and stingrays in the shallow touch pool will take place under the supervision of aquarium staffers.

"Part of our strategic process going forward has been, as much as possible, to connect our visiting public more directly with our animal collection," Siddall said.

The exact number of sharks and stingrays in the pool has yet to be determined. The aquarium already has a few bamboo sharks, but no salt-water stingrays.

Siddall said work on the 5,000-square-foot pool will take 14 months and will start early next year, after the aquarium completes a new $440,000 jellyfish exhibit.

That follows the aquarium's $3.3 million Humboldt penguin habitat, which opened in March and helped spur the aquarium to record attendance of 300,000 for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.

Siddall said the touch pool will give the Niagara Falls facility an attraction that otherwise can be enjoyed only at major aquariums such as the New England Aquarium in Boston, the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta and the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.

"We're modeling it after the best in the industry," Siddall said.

Most of the funding for the touch pool will come from private foundations. Although details are yet to be announced, Siddall said the John R. Oishei Foundation "has certainly been a player at the table for this project."

The aquarium will spend almost $200,000 of its own money on the pool project.

The Niagara County Industrial Development Agency approved a $273,000 grant for the pool Wednesday, with the money coming from the state-financed Niagara Falls Tourism Target Zone Fund. The amount equals 20 percent of the estimated $1.3 million cost of the project, said Andrea Klyczek, IDA assistant director.

"They really are becoming a terrific tourism spot," NCIDA Chairman Stephen F. Brady said.

"It is a great family venue, one of the few in downtown Niagara Falls," said William L. Ross, an NCIDA board member.

Siddall said he took charge of the aquarium almost three years ago with a vision of "aggressive growth and expansion."

"I hate to keep using these aquarium puns, but the tides are changing here," Siddall said. "We're talking over $5 million worth of investments in three years. We got accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. We had record attendance. I can't help but feel proud."

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