Look to your left after walking into The Living Sea Aquarium and you just might find yourself looking at a man chucking feed to sharks. The sharks will thrash a bit, quickly snatching up the grub, and then make a few lithe laps around the tank, indifferent to the slack-jawed gawkers who have just entered the shop. You'll eventually tear yourself away from the shark and, as your eyes begin to focus on the corals, waterfalls and the moray eel, you'll come to realize: you're not in Petsmart anymore.
It's possible that, until you started reading this, you didn't know a place such as this existed, or if you did, you heard of it much the way I did: as something of a "mini-Shedd" in the near suburbs. But The Living Sea Aquarium is there — just off the Kennedy, in Park Ridge, nestled in a strip-style shop adjacent (to no one's amusement but my own) to a Chinese restaurant.
"I started up The Living Sea Aquarium about 20 years ago," says Mike Sergey who, along with his wife Jan, owns and operates the store. "We've been in this location for 15. It's like another home. We just bought out the whole building — we're here to stay." Looking around, you can understand why they'd be reluctant to move: the aquarium runs over 11,000 gallons of water, sustaining hundreds of marine creatures, including horseshoe crabs, blowfish, sting rays and, yes, sharks.
Now, if you are anything like me, you may have a few misconceptions about sharks, and what sort of place houses them. When I first got word of The Living Sea, I scoped out their website and got about as far as "interactive shark feeding" before my misguided imagination went on a tailspin, fixated on what I had just read. Sharks! Live! In building! Fed!
Caught up in my jubilation, I called my father.
"Dad, they have sharks!"
"Who has sharks?"
"The aquarium I'm going to! Sharks!"
"Hon, I'm at work."
My father, an auto body repairman, failed to share my rapture.
"Did you hear me?! SHARKS!! They. FEED. SHARKS."
"You know, your cousin Jenny does really well for herself as a teacher."
"Teaching. Think about it."
I was thrilled. How many sharks did they have? Were the sharks in a big tank? Did they have names like Bitey and Mr. Teeth? Did the store shut down for Discovery Channel's Shark Week? Maybe they held big screenings. Maybe they held screenings WHILE THEY FED THE SHARKS. I imagined a trio of Living Sea employees gathered around a shark tank, chucking hunks of sashimi into the water as they discussed one of the most truly awesome scenes in all of cinema history, when a super-intelligent, genetically modified Mako shark bursts forth without warning, ripping Samuel L. Jackson from the side of an indoor pool and disappears back into the depths in the classic film Deep Blue Sea. Sharks!
The Living Sea is not like this at all.
Arriving at Living Sea, I expected to spend my visit feeling more than a little embarrassed about my overblown delusions. The aquarium's brick exterior and the window arrangements of plastic fish convey an approachable feeling, though, and the tree-lined, suburban atmosphere of Park Ridge keeps haughty attitudes at bay (pun intended).
What's more is that, according to Sergey, defusing misconceptions like mine are half the idea.
"One of the great things we do here is educate," says Sergey, who often plays host to large classroom groups looking for an up-close and personal encounter with exotic marine life. "Kids come in and they run over to the tanks filled with clown fish and they're screaming 'Nemo! Nemo!' They turn around and point at the starfish, and they're calling them 'Patricks'. Movies and cartoons — these things have gotten them interested in what's going on here. They're not always exactly right, but they want to know, they're excited, and it's great. It reminds me of what it was like when I was a kid. I love it."
Ask Sergey what it was like when he was a kid, and you'll find that not too much has changed. He describes his young self as, "that kid who had a ton of fish tanks in the basement." I, personally, never knew that kid, but Sergey's description makes me wish that I could go back to grade school, find them and be their friend. Spurred on by family trips to Sea World (Sergey on Sergey: "I saw a stingray and said, 'I want THAT.'"), he spent long days with creatures far more interesting than your standard goldfish in a plastic baggie, building an outstanding assortment of fish, corals and ecosystems — in addition to an encyclopedic knowledge of all things aquatic.
Years and experience (and none-too-shabby business trips to locations like the Red Sea and Australia's Great Barrier Reef) have helped Sergey build his basement hobby into a profitable business. The creatures housed at Living Sea are all available for purchase — for a price.
"We're not talking about buy it today, flush it down the toilet tomorrow goldfish here," says Sergey as he fills my hand with small pellets. He gestures to a large pond filled with about 20 koi. "These are beautiful, unique animals — you can't take them for granted. Each one is different, comes from a different part of the world, require a different sort of environment, different care. They can amaze you, if you treat them right." He instructs me to put my pellet-filled fist into the pond and turn it over, slowly, and gradually open my hand. I'm elbow-deep in the pond for about two seconds before the koi frenzy commences, fish sucking on my fingers, palm and wrist in a frantic search for food. Water surges up to the brick edges of the pond as they flop on top of one another. I am reminded of a junior high make-out party. I scream. Sergey laughs. The pellets disappear and the pond goes still.
"Can I do that again?"
The interactive feedings are a brilliant feature to add to a shop which would otherwise cater to a highly specialized market. Though business at The Living Sea is brisk, people don't buy lemon head sharks the way they would buy, say, pants. This limited demand means that exotic fish, reptiles and amphibians are purchased in very small quantities, ensuring that these animals are healthy and well cared for until they find a home outside of the shop. Unfortunately, this also means that the fish at Living Sea are going to set you back considerably more than the "flush it down the toilet" goldfish you might get from a chain pet shop.
The store can be rented out for parties or school groups, or individuals can schedule a full-aquarium, hands-on tour. The hands-on tour, something a larger establishment like the Shedd would face tremendous hurdles in offering, is a truly unique and outstanding experience. Even without the mako sharks.
Leading me over to another pool that comes up to my hip, Sergey introduces me to Speedy, the Living Sea mascot. It is, far and away, the ugliest fish I have ever seen and I want nothing to do with it. The fish, which lolls around in its pond, feeds on whole shrimp, which I learn when Sergey hands me a bucket of them. Speedy is a blowfish, and he is huge. He sort of looks like the comic book guy from The Simpsons, and I imagine him scoffing at me as I try to feed him a shrimp.
"When Speedy is scared or angry," says Sergey, "he puffs up to about twice his normal size, and one-inch spikes pop out of his skin." Sergey slides his fingers under the relaxed spikes on Speedy's back to highlight their size. I feed Speedy another shrimp.
Sergey's knowledge of marine life is seemingly limitless, and has garnered him no small amount of notoriety as an expert on the subject. He has been consulted on everything from snakeheads in captivity to genetic GloFish and featured on NPR's 848, Crain's Chicago Business, CNN and most of the local news stations. The Living Sea is responsible for the aquatic installations of all the Chicagoland Rainforest Cafés and is certified by the Marine Aquarium Council. I ask Sergey if his kids are as passionate about fish as he is.
"They're sort of over it," he says, laughing as he walks down the glowing rows of tanks. "Though when my daughter goes to the Shedd for school, she's sort of queen for the day, leading everyone around. She says, 'Oh, this is that sort of fish, my dad's got that. It's native to Australia.' It's really cute."
We're standing over the shark pond, watching two small lemon head sharks glide just below the surface. The other fish in the pond are unperturbed, and an older gentleman walks into the shop, watching the scene. The clock behind the moray eel reads 2pm, time for the daily feeding (free for spectators). Having survived Speedy's Death Spikes and the Koi Pond of Terror, I am feeling emboldened. Brazen, even. I step towards the pond.
Mike Sergey laughs, and hands me a bucket of whole squids. He places the limp meat in a special grip-claw and hands it over to me.
"Have at it," he says.
Balanced over the edge of the pond, I hold the squid-gripping-claw just above the water. The larger shark swims by once, twice, then snatches the meat from the end. I hold tight to the squid claw, surprised by the shark's force. I realize that my shirt has gotten wet, I will probably be smelling like shrimp for at least the next hour, and I still haven't seen anything that looks like it could rip Samuel L. Jackson from the very earth he stands on. But, having listened to Mike Sergey talk about the Living Sea, I realize that I am also fascinated by the things he's telling me, caught up in the thrills of a man who truly and wholly loves what he does, and wants other people to love it, too.
As he finishes telling me about sharks and feeder fish, Sergey turns to me with the bucket of damp squid.
How can I resist?
The Living Sea Aquarium is located at 811 W. Devon Ave. in Park Ridge. Free stingray feedings Monday through Friday at 2 and 7pm. Free shark and stingray feedings every Saturday and Sunday at 2pm.