As the day wound to a close at the New England Aquarium, legions of children headed home, bursting with stories about penguins, sea lions, and turtles.
But for a few special guests late Thursday afternoon, the show was just beginning.
“You have the whole aquarium all to yourselves!” aquarium biologist Tina Wilkins exclaimed as she greeted young Delia Binette and Tyson LeBlanc, and their families in their front lobby. The children beamed with excitement.
“I want to see a seal!” said Delia, a sparkler of a 6-year-old from Saco, Maine, who was carrying a stuffed seal of her own.
“Maybe he’ll give you a kiss,” Wilkins said.
“I don’t know about that!” Delia replied.
She was diagnosed in February with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare bone cancer, and has since undergone regular chemotherapy sessions. Tyson, a 7-year-old from Peabody, has battled complications of a ruptured appendix.
The children were receiving a two-hour private tour of the aquarium through a partnership launched last year between the aquarium and Massachusetts General Hospital for Children. Every couple of months, the aquarium hosts a small group of pediatric patients, many of whom have faced lengthy hospital stays.
“It gives them a chance to just be kids,” said Wilkins, who came up with the idea with a co-worker. “We wanted them to have a chance to feel special.”
Volunteers agree to stay late for the behind-the-scenes tour, which includes a visit to the animal hospital area to show children the parallels between their treatment and those the animals receive.
The tour also allows them to interact with the animals. Beside the seal pool, Delia was delighted as a seal mimicked her arm motions with its flippers, then rubbed its nose against hers.
“He got my nose wet!” she said with delight. After the seal barked, she demanded to know why he was so loud.
She had other questions, too. Who was the biggest seal? How old are they? How can they be out of water? It wasn’t a day to be shy.
Then it was Tyson’s turn. He turned in a circle, then smiled as the seal did the same. He rubbed her neck, and the seal lay its head on his arm.
“Awww,” said his mother, Tara LeBlanc, who said it was wonderful to see him so happy.
“When I heard about this, I cried, I was so excited for him,” she said. “It’s been a long year for him. For all of us.”
She asked her son if feeding the seal was fun. He nodded yes. A man of few words, she quipped.
Next, down a narrow corridor, was a tank with an electric eel. Delia watched it swim for a while and then jumped at the chance to feed it, her hand just inches above the water.
“Made my heart go pretty quick,” said Kristine Binette, her mother. Kristine Binette said her daughter was incredibly tough, but had been through a lot for someone so young. To have a such a special day was a godsend, she said.
“She’s like the eel,” her mother said. “She’s electrified.”