“It might look like ravioli, but it’s a shark egg.”
Intern Ali was all reverence, admiring gaze at the buttery pouch cradled in her fingers.
“This is the third one this week,” she said.
At John Ball Zoo, eighteen cownose rays shared a pool with three bamboo sharks.
Plus, one shark egg.
“I’ll take this inside if you finish up with the strainer.”
I adjusted my loaner boots and stepped into the pool. The smallest of the gentle creatures, Sweet Baby Ray, tipped their fins to avoid me, their slow glide sidetracking me for a few moments.
“Hey, what happens to them?” I forced out, my eyes still following the rays.
“To the eggs.”
Ali looked at the little pouch in her hand. “They’re not fertile.”
“I know.” (I didn’t know.)
But I could imagine. I could imagine their eager noses bumping into the rough stone sides of their pool, figuring out how to swim in their small family’s methodic circles, slipping underneath their neighbors playing tag.
I reached down and let my fingers trail over a ray swimming past me, her cartilaginous body feeling like wet mushroom tops or the surface of a soggy sunflower petal.
“I suppose we say our goodbyes,” Ali said and turned away.
Cownose stingrays are a group of sea rays known for their noses—curved inward like two bumpers on a bumper car—their broad head with wide-set eyes, and the small, eye-like holes located on the top of their head called spiracles. Those holes pump water through the stingray’s gills and allow them to breathe even when they aren’t moving.
Spiracles. What a ridiculous name for the very thing that keeps you alive.
That night, it stormed to the point where my mom briefly considered stuffing us in the basement bathtub. We lost power.
So did most of the neighborhood. And our zoo.
When a zoo’s power went out, backup generators kick in immediately, providing power to fish tanks, electric lights, and gate codes.
But at 7:30 a.m. on July 8 of 2016, all eighteen stingray and three sharks were found dead.
The heavy rainstorm caused flooding, which in turn shorted a circuit and turned off the pumps in the lagoon. The backup systems failed to alert staff. Low oxygen levels in the water was the cause of death.
Spiracles are only so helpful when there’s no oxygen left to pump.
When my zoo shift rolled around the next week, keepers walked around with puffy red eyes, averting their gaze from the drained stingray lagoon, the empty canopy, and the falsely cheery sign saying “EXHIBIT CLOSED: We apologize but the Stingray exhibit is closed for the season.”
As I stared at the dark lagoon, I couldn’t help but think of Intern Ali’s goodbyes—so many goodbyes—as she must have helped keepers dispose of their still, cold, fungi-feeling bodies. I thought of spiracles and bumper cars and subrostral fins.
I thought of stingray and sharks suffocating in an inescapable pool. But mostly, I thought of Sweet Baby Ray and of their friendly waving wings.
Next summer, when I walked back up through the zoo and past the lagoon, the whole exhibit had been plowed over. Fresh cement lay in its place.
It was as if the tragedy had never happened.
And it was the same the next summer, and the next, and the next and next and next until this year I said goodbye to my education job at the zoo and said a hesitant hello to working a job within my newly-earned majors.
On October 22, 2022, I found myself visiting at someone else’s zoo, a few states away, for the first time since I was sixteen. There was a stingray lagoon.
I’ve never rinsed my arms with such fervor, scrubbing away at sadness and nerves and skin cells. Cownose rays have only a few natural predators, but humans are one of them. And hammerhead sharks. But.
There seemed to be dozens of them, swimming in their hypnotic circles and flapping their hellos at half-terrified guests. A zoo educator told me the instructions I used to tell guests.
“Got it,” I said. “Question though.”
I stuck my hand into the cold water, fingers outstretched.
“Go for it!” the zoo educator said.
“Why do they wave at us like that?” This teeny tiny cownose ray swam by, little fin wiggling in a mushroomy wave that made me think of Sweet Baby Ray.
“Speculation,” she said, “but what we think is they can’t tell the ground from the walls here—out in the wild, they could just swim and swim—no walls out there in the open ocean.”
I looked back at the pool.
“Suck as much life through those little spiracles as you can, everyone,” I said, feeling equal parts ridiculous and overwhelmed with joy.
The education person laughed, equal parts confused and delighted.
Gabrielle Eisma graduated Calvin with a BFA in studio art and writing in 2022. She’s from Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she now works as a writer and illustrator for books for (mostly) children and middle grade readers.