TAMPA, Fla. — ZooTampa at Lowry Park is reopening a renovated model of the habitat it shut down last year after a dozen stingrays died suddenly.
The zoo says a "reimagined" state-of-the-art version of Stingray Bay will open at the end of 2022, allowing guests to once again touch and feed rays.
In a statement, the zoo said the 34,000-gallon renovated habitat will be home to cownose and southern rays. The walls will be low enough for young kids to reach into the water, but the zoo says there will also be plenty of rest areas and hideaways for the rays to ensure the animals are comfortable.
"Stingray Bay also features a truly unforgettable opportunity to wade into the water for a rare up-close-and-personal encounter with these amazing animals!" ZooTampa wrote in a news release.
Back in May 2021, zookeepers were shocked and heartbroken to find 12 stingrays had perished mysteriously. They were seven cownose rays, four southern rays and one Atlantic ray that died.
No other animals were in the exhibit.
Care providers checked equipment and ran water quality tests, but everything initially appeared to be normal at the stingray touch tank, which had been a popular spot inside the zoo. At the time, visitors shared hundreds of memories on the zoo's social media pages, including pictures they had taken with the stingrays.
In the weeks that followed, the zoo worked hard to figure out what went wrong. That included sending tissue and water samples to a German lab that was considered "the gold standard" in water testing. Two experts with aquatic experience were also brought in to help the zoo figure out what happened.
Ultimately, in June, ZooTampa determined a "supersaturation event" was to blame. Citing lab and pathology analysis, the zoo determined the incident caused gas bubbles inside the rays, similar to the "bends" in human scuba divers. Those bubbles in the bloodstream are believed to have killed the rays.
Last year, ZooTampa explained oxygen levels had normalized by the time the water was tested in the morning after a standard water change. That's why staff members could not immediately figure out what had happened on their own.
"The exact cause of the supersaturation is unknown, however, possible causes include a system malfunction or a crack in portions of the pipe line which was not readily accessible," ZooTampa wrote at the time. "The Life Support System was checked daily and maintained by trained aquarists and maintenance staff on a schedule which followed the manufacturer’s recommendations and industry standards."
Last summer, the zoo announced it would be building the updated habitat with a new water management system. Monday's announcement confirms that updated habitat will be available to guests in 2022. As the zoo has previously stated, the remodeled Stingray Bay will include redundancies, safeguards and new procedures to ensure there is no repeat of last year's tragedy.
The new habitat won't be the only change this year at the zoo.
The David A. Straz Jr. Manatee Critical Care Center is already the second-largest critical care facility of its type in the country. Late this year, ZooTampa says it will be expanding further and add a nursery pool for the smallest manatees it sees.
“We are always looking to enhance the guest experience, further improve animal welfare and strengthen our standing as Florida’s most popular cultural institution,” ZooTampa President and CEO Joe Couceiro wrote in a statement.
ZooTampa boasted record attendance last year.