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Where’s the one place in Chicago where you might get a taste of the city’s history and architecture, come face-to-face with a 6-foot catfish, bump into a skunk and get a peek at a frog’s doctor’s appointment—all in 60 minutes? At Shedd Aquarium on a behind-the-scenes tour. Here are eight highlights from a guided ramble deep within the eight-sided aquarium.

A guest experience guide showing a couple a long corridor of habitats behind the scenes at Shedd.
The aquarium's facade in mid-construction, February 1929.

1. Getting started with Shedd's history

Our exploration steps off from the Northern Trust Guest Suite on the main floor, but not before we meet a life-sized portrait of John G. Shedd and learn about one of Chicago’s most notable merchant princes and philanthropists. The room also holds large-format black-and-white photos that document the aquarium’s early history, from groundbreaking to filling the reservoirs with seawater brought by railroad tank cars from the Gulf of Mexico.

Once we’re each equipped with a tour wristband and headset—an accessibility feature that benefits everyone in noisy areas—Ethel Seltzer and Bob McCarthy, two of Shedd’s knowledgeable volunteers, whisk us out the door.

2. Aquatic architecture ahoy!

We immediately pause in the foyer to appreciate the bronze, marble, terra-cotta and ceramic architectural details, all exquisitely portraying aquatic life. Especially impressive are three large hanging lights with bronze octopuses draped over their translucent shell shads. Then cutting across the busy foyer, Bob leads us through the portal that takes us behind the Rivers gallery.

The historic bronze doors leading into the Shedd feature intricate relief sculpture of aquatic animals, including a seahorse.
A yellow stingray's relatively round body and multitude of light-colored spots help it to camouflage.

3. A first look at animals

At our first stop, we see a school of yellow stingrays taking their cold-weather hiatus from Stingray Touch in a reserve habitat. Sharing the area are dozens of bogas, slender cobalt blue schooling fish that can also be seen in the Caribbean Reef.

As we look, two aquarists squeeze past us with a small animal carrier. We’re surprised to see a skunk, but Violet, who has been de-scented, is on her way to a narrated encounter with guests in the gallery dedicated to the Great Lakes, where this native animal is indeed at home.

4. Watch out for catfish!

We pass a verdant veritable jungle of large tropical plants between the Rivers and the Islands and Lakes galleries and proceed to a maximum-sized reserve habitat where a jaú catfish and a redtail catfish share quarters. Both tend to keep to the bottom, but the jaú comes up to check us out.

Among the largest of the Amazon catfishes, the jaú is agile and aggressive, and Bob warns us to keep our hands away from the rim of the habitat as the 6-foot fish with foot-long whiskers (and stabbing teeth) makes two passes at the surface.

5. A turtle free-for-all

Turning another corner of the octagonal interior, we stop at another large reserve area devoted to a mix of freshwater turtles species. The turtles appear to recognize the blue shirts worn by volunteers and aquarists alike, Ethel says, as they paddle toward her. Or maybe they just gravitate to people who stand where they get fed. She grabs a container of pellet food, grabbing the attention of more turtles, and flings the bite-sized bits into the water, setting off a splashing free-for-all.

Shedd's striped skunk, Violet, is an animal programs animal-- meaning that the fluffy, mottled black and white mammal is brought onto the floor periodically to meet guests with Guest Experience interpreter.
Volunteers prep food in one of the fishes kitchens.

6. Just how big is this place?!

As we move on to the area behind the Great Lakes gallery, where lizards, turtles and tortoises and the skunk live, it’s apparent just how much space there is behind the exhibits.

When Walter Chute, Shedd’s first director, went on a fact-finding tour of European and American aquariums, he noticed that they all lacked adequate work areas for caring for the animals. His detailed notes informed the octagonal design of the building, which provided thick wedges of workspace between intersecting galleries.

7. Dinner time!

We get a peek into one of several kitchens, complete with walk-in fridge and freezer, where food is stored and the animals’ meals are prepared. An aquarist is chopping greens for a salad for the Bahamian iguana. Ethel asks us what we’re planning for dinner and notes that the sustainable seafood the animals get is the same as what we might have in a restaurant.

A line of habitats behind the scenes, divided by concrete walls.
A guest experience guide shows a couple an x-ray as an animal check-up occurs on the other side of a viewing window. Tactile models are also used in the behind the scenes tours.

8. Staying healthy one check-up at a time

We exit the work area into the Great Lakes gallery and head for the south Abbott Oceanarium stairway and passage into the A. Watson Armour III Center for Aquatic Animal Health and Welfare—Shedd’s full-service on-site animal hospital and environmental quality laboratory. The morning’s exams and treatments—for a scrawled filefish at 9, a kelp surfperch at 10 and a freshwater stingray at 11—are still listed on a dry erase board.

Unlike your local veterinarian’s clinic, there is no waiting room filled with patients. Even with 32,000 animals, the hospital is usually quiet because the animal health team is dedicated to preventive care, and it shows in the animals’ overall good health.

As we peer through the exam room window, however, an aquarist and veterinarian enter with a medium-sized food storage container. The mini animal carrier contains a Surinam horned toad from the Amphibians special exhibit. Whenever the aquarists and trainers have a concern about an animal’s health, they alert the veterinarians to schedule an exam, either in the hospital or, for larger animals, at their habitats.

There are more sights, sounds and even scents to discover behind the scenes at Shedd Aquarium. Tours are available year-round on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., and take place daily during spring break and the summer. The Behind-the-Scenes Tour package includes the tour, express entry, admission to all exhibits and a ticket to the next available . Dive in!

—Karen Furnweger, web editor