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Public can glimpse new National Aquarium exhibit [Updated]

Update: The National Aquarium announced Thursday that "Living Seashore" will open May 12.

Starting Saturday, Baltimoreans will get their first glimpse at an innovative new exhibit under construction at the National Aquarium that will allow visitors to touch some of the marine life.

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When the interactive "Living Seashore" exhibit opens in May, it will introduce visitors to more than 150 animals from 20 species that live between the tides of the Mid-Atlantic seashore. Visitors will be able to gingerly feel the prickly pointed spines of a purple sea urchin; run their hands over an Atlantic stingray's muscular wing; and feel the undulating belly of a moon jellyfish.

The Baltimore aquarium will be one of just three nationally to have a touchpool for jellyfish, according to the aquarium's media relations manager, Kate Rowe.

"Living Seashore will be the most interactive exhibit we've ever introduced," Jack Cover, National Aquarium general curator, said in an email. "We're excited to introduce guests to the beauty and wonder of our local seashores and to provide hands-on time with our amazing animals."

The $5.5 million exhibit will cover 2,700 square feet and include two touchpools. It is part of a $10.5 million project to upgrade the infrastructure of the 33-year-old building.

Though the hands-on part of the experience won't begin for another few months, construction on the habitat is far enough advanced that it will be included in two special "immersion tours" starting this weekend, Rowe said. There's an additional fee for the immersion tours. The 45-minute daily Behind the Scenes tour costs an extra $15, while the 21/2 -hour Insiders Tour costs $60 for nonmembers and includes aquarium admission.

Construction for the exhibit began in January 2014, and Rowe estimated that it is more than three-quarters complete. Though just a few dozen animals have been installed in their new habitat so far, more will be added each week, including clearnose skates, horseshoe crabs and knobbed whelks.

On a related matter, Rowe said that no decision has been made about whether to relocate the aquarium's eight Atlantic bottlenose dolphins.

Aquarium officials announced in May 2014 that they were considering no longer having the dolphins on exhibit. Though the mammals are popular with visitors, the aquarium's mission increasingly is focused on conservation.

In addition, some scientists are concerned that dolphins in captivity may mutilate themselves or show other signs of chronic stress.

The aquarium staff is continuing to study various options, Rowe said. This includes moving the dolphins to an outside sanctuary.

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