Sea Otter exhibit at Monterey Bay Aquarium

Sea Otters are the stars of the show at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Photo by John Poimiroo

Sardines circle in a never-ending silver stream above the entrance to the Open Sea exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The spectacle of being beneath the swirling center of a school of sardines is so entrancing that some aquarium visitors are said to lie on their backs on the floor to fully experience it.

Since it opened in 1984, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has created many aquatic spectacles. It was the world’s first aquarium to devote itself to telling the story of its home waters and has done so to great acclaim due to: its influence in protecting Monterey Bay, its work in restoring Monterey’s historic Cannery Row plus the compelling beauty and scale and of its innovative exhibits.

It was for these reasons that the Society of American Travel Writers recently awarded it their prestigious Phoenix Award for cultural, historical, and environmental preservation.

Monterey Bay Aquarium sits perched beside the opalescent-blue waters of Monterey Bay, not far from where Spanish explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno first landed in 1602. “The biggest and best exhibit at Monterey Bay Aquarium is the Bay itself,” says aquarium executive director Julie Packard. “You go out on the back decks and see humpback whales breaching or sea lions and harbor seals, sea otters and sea birds going by. It’s the place where people connect with the real Bay and feel that deep connection to the ocean.”

Kelp Forest at Monterey Bay Aquarium

Kelp Forest at Monterey Bay Aquarium. Photo by John Poimiroo

Gateway to California’s Coast

The aquarium’s proximity to California’s central coast and  Monterey Peninsula makes it one of California’s not-to-be-missed destinations.

Cannery Row was not an attraction when John Steinbeck wrote his novel of the same name in 1945. The book was set in Depression-era Monterey when the fish canneries along the row were bustling with activity, viscerally raw and operating with such ruthless efficiency that they’d depleted the bay of millions of sardines by the early 1950s.

By the mid-1970s, tourist shops and restaurants began occupying abandoned buildings along Cannery Row, which soon joined though storybook-like Carmel, posh Pebble Beach, idyllic Carmel Valley, scenic Big Sur and historic Monterey were the area’s prime reasons for visiting. Cannery Row was on the verge of becoming more than a literary footnote.

At the time, the Packard family (of Hewlett-Packard fame) was searching for “a big project that would make a difference.” Previously, the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill – then the largest in U.S. history – had raised their concern about the fragility of ocean environments. Julie Packard later wrote that the loss of thousands of sea birds and countless other ocean animals in that spill made growing environmental activism and unrest, “all too real.”

Sitting beside Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station at the west end of Cannery Row was the then-empty Hovden Cannery, once the largest sardine cannery in Monterey. Two of Hopkins’ marine scientists were friends of one of the Packard sisters and wondered if wouldn’t it be great if the old cannery might be used to showcase the beauty of the bay’s marine life.

Thereafter, the Packards realized this might be a project that could make a difference. So, the Packard Foundation underwrote a feasibility study to determine whether an aquarium would “pencil out,” leading to the purchase of the Hovden Cannery and the retention of San Francisco architect Chuck Davis to redesign the 320,000-square-foot industrial plant. David Packard immersed himself in planning the aquarium, even going so far as to personally cast, in his Big Sur foundry, the bronze bollards outside the entrance to the aquarium.

Cannery Row looking toward Monterey Bay Aquarium

Monterey’s Cannery Row made famous by writer John Steinbeck is a gentrified industrial area leading to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Photo by John Poimiroo

The resulting structure reflects the cannery’s original lines, retains the cannery’s massive boilers (displayed prominently within its foyer) and features exposed wood truss ceilings, plumbing, and mechanical systems, giving it the look and feel of a sardine cannery but repurposed to house more than 35,000 plants and animals. And, true to its past a steam whistle is sounded across Cannery Row each day at noon.

Exploring an Underwater Forest

A signature element of the new aquarium was its Kelp Forest, one that takes visitors beneath the bay to see what life there is like at full scale. Lit by daylight from above, the kelp grows at a rate faster than tropical bamboo. They thrive in a towering, three-story-tall tank inhabited by a community of sea bass, sardines, anchovies, sharks, rockfish, and kelpfish, just as you’d find in the bay.

Visitors sit in awed silence before the spectacle. On the aquarium’s opening day, Julie’s mother Lucile summed up what many visitors are experiencing; “In all my life I’ve never been able to see what’s under the water. Now I can. Now everyone can.”

Vice President David Rosenberg says, “One aspect that makes the aquarium unique is that it brings 2,000 gallons of fresh saltwater per minute from the Bay into the exhibits, starting in the kelp forest and circulating throughout the aquarium, returning to the Bay just as clean if not cleaner. So, what you’re seeing is exactly what you would see if you could go out there.”

The aquarium’s genius was to transform aquaria from halls of fish tanks into immersive aquatic environments, tanks that project out from the wall or large acrylic bubbles that allow visitors to lean into the tank as if they are surrounded by water. Inside the two-story Sea Otter exhibit furry-faced sea otters delight visitors during daily feeding and training sessions. The symbol of the aquarium is a wreath of kelp, but its personality is embodied within the endearing face and antics of the sea otters, all of which are rescued females who also serve as surrogate moms for stranded sea otter pups, later released to the wild.

Otters are the only marine mammals at the aquarium, though they are not its only stars. In the 1.2 million gallon Open Sea exhibit, green sea turtles, hammerhead sharks, speedy yellowfin tuna, an ocean sunfish (Mola mola), blunt-headed dolphinfish and thousands of Pacific sardines swim behind a 90-foot-long, two-story-tall window that is so clear in off-hours a curtain of bubbles prevents the fish from swimming into it.

Monterey Bay Aquarium “put jellies on the map,” according to Julie Packard. With their first special exhibit of sea jellies, Planet of the Jellies, the aquarium perfected methods of housing and caring for these fragile beauties that are now duplicated in aquariums, worldwide. In the Open Sea exhibit, orange-brown sea nettles, purple-striped jellies, iridescent comb jellies and transparent moon and crystal jellies endlessly dance their ballet against cobalt blue backgrounds. Monterey Bay Aquarium revealed nature as mesmerizing art.

Scallop Cone Jelly Fish

Scallop Cone jelly fish glide effortlessly though the Into the Deep exhibit. Photo by John Poimiroo

Into the Deep of the Open Sea

The aquarium has bested the Open Sea by going Into the Deep (its current special exhibit), sending deep submersible research vessels down to the sea floor to see what lives more than a mile below the surface.

Peterson said, “David Packard participated in early research dives before he created a deep-sea research institute. He realized that the open ocean was the last great frontier on our planet, that it is underexplored, critically important to our survival, and that it could be explored more easily if you brought scientists and engineers together, which was his model at HP. Tackle something big and change the world was Packard’s guiding principle which led to him creating the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, three years after the aquarium.”

On recent research dives, the Monterey Bay Aquarium team brought back startling wonders: scarlet, bioluminescent Bloody-Belly Comb Jellies, immense Japanese spider crabs, prickly porcupine crabs, lacy bubblegum coral and North Pacific bigeye octopus. Each creature reveals the dazzling creatures that dwell within the black depths of the Monterey Canyon, invisible from the surface but angling out to sea in the center of Monterey Bay.

Astounding visitors with the wonders and mysteries of Monterey Bay has included exhibiting giant Pacific octopus that use special pigment cells in their skin to blend in with intricately patterned corals, plants and rocks, majestic bat rays that soar through the water, and such pedestrian, inactive creatures as sand dollars. Monterey Bay Aquarium was the first aquarium outside of Japan to exhibit tuna and the first on Earth to successfully exhibit juvenile great white sharks before returning them to the wild.

Guiding these visitor experiences are front-line staff and eight hundred enthusiastic volunteer guides. Rosenberg said that while visitors come to see the exhibits, their most lasting impressions are often of the interactions they have with volunteers and staff. Volunteers will progress through stages. Red-jacketed volunteers – the most experienced – will have spent over 40 hours in training, and that’s atop the daily briefings that volunteers participate in before each shift. “We get really excited when the passion they have for the stories we tell rubs off on people,” Rosenberg said.

Inside the Monterey Bay Aquarium dolphins swim toward the Open Sea exhibit.

Looking for The Open Sea exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium? Just follow the dolphins swimming toward the entrance. Photo by John Poimiroo

Education is a fundamental purpose of the institution, which set a record in its first year, becoming the first aquarium to top 2.4 million visitors. Over 71 million have passed through its doors since it opened in October 1984 and more than 2.7 million school kids have been able to visit the aquarium for free. Online courses, developed during the pandemic, have taught students in every state and many countries, and Monterey Bay Aquarium’s $42-million, steel and glass Bechtel Family Center for Ocean Education and Leadership, established in 2019, inspires the next wave of ocean leaders: teachers and teens.

In the second year of the Open Sea exhibit, Monterey Bay Aquarium explored a critical ocean conservation issue: unsustainable fishing and aquaculture. Fishing for Solutions caused visitors to ask what they could do to make better choices when buying seafood, leading Monterey Bay Aquarium to start Seafood Watch, a consumer pocket guide to purchasing sustainable seafood in restaurants and markets. It grew to a global program leading to worldwide changes in demand for sustainable fishing and aquaculture.

Other initiatives helped recover threatened populations of sea otters along the California coastline, establish the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, create an institute for marine research and educate policymakers to the threats to the ocean environment from microplastics. Each of these is explored in depth and entertainingly within the aquarium

Make It Entertaining!

During the development of the aquarium, David Packard cautioned his team of marine scientists, “We want this to be engaging and yeah, you guys might want to teach them (aquarium visitors) every last thing you learned in college, but this needs to be entertaining.” Whether it is 600 gallons of surf crashing above you as you walk (bone dry) through the simulated rocky shores of Monterey Bay or a spawn of spiny, purple Sea Urchins, Monterey Bay Aquarium entertains while informing.

The colorful creatures of California’s tide pools (written about by pioneering Monterey marine biologist Ed Ricketts who inspired Steinbeck’s Cannery Row character, Doc): giant green anemones, acorn barnacles, pink-tipped aggregating anemones and deathly-green dead man’s fingers are all displayed and interpreted for easy viewing and understanding.

Great Tide Pool beside the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Even on a brisk winter day a visit to the Great Tide Pool outside the Monterey Bay Aquarium can be relaxing. Photo by John Poimiroo

Plan to spend at least four hours at the aquarium. Shows and feedings will extend your stay. Admission is $59.95 for adults, $49.95 for teens (13 – 17), $44.95 for children (5 – 12), and $49.95 for seniors (70+), with members able to enjoy unlimited visits during the year. Open 10 – 5 daily, except Dec. 25. Parking is $20 at nearby city lots.

Beyond Monterey Bay

You can dine inside the aquarium at its cafe (salads, sustainable seafood, sandwiches and burgers, fish tacos and burritos) or exit (with hand stamp) to dine at any number of casual to fine restaurants a short walk along Cannery Row. Lodging varies from campsites to inexpensive yet nicely kept chain motels in nearby Seaside to luxurious lodges and inns on the Monterey Peninsula.

The aquarium is busiest from late spring through early autumn. The weather is best in winter between storms. It’s often foggy and cool on summer days. A 2-hour Cannery Row Kayak Tour (from $65) complements any visit to the aquarium. Allow one or two additional days to explore Monterey, the nearby town of Carmel, Mission Carmel, 17 Mile Drive, Point Lobos State Park and Big Sur.

If possible, set aside a minute to lie on the floor of the entrance to the Open Sea to watch Pacific sardines endlessly circling above. It is one of many awe-inspiring experiences to be enjoyed on a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

John Poimiroo is a travel writer/photographer living in California’s Sierra Nevada near Sacramento.