The Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the premier aquariums in the world. It has a strong not-for-profit, educational and conservationist ethic, and quite frankly is amazing. I grew up near Chicago, and I know from aquariums having spent a lot of time at the Shedd Aquarium, but the Monterey in a lot of respects blows it away, mostly because of the variety of fish and sea creatures not found anywhere else. I was also intrigued by it as it is located in the Cannery Row historic area of the city, a place so beautifully and somewhat brutally written about by the great American author John Steinbeck in his books Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat. I drove the van to a parking space, noted that the various parking lots were mostly empty, left the window open a crack for Mavis (snoozing away in her dog bed festooned with pillows), and walked a couple of blocks to the aquarium. Immediately I had a case of sticker shock; the entrance fee was $49.95. But what was I to do? I was there, I wanted to see it. I made a mental note that it would be another ramen noodle night, paid the fee and walked through.
The place is massive. Built in the 1980’s, they literally used the skeleton of an old sardine cannery and transformed it into an aquarium meant to preserve what once had been exploited, the sea and its life. It has two floors, sectioned off by zones of interest. I immediately went for the Kelp Forest, one of the largest aquarium tanks in the world. I saw a giant grouper, seemingly the king of the tank. No one, not even the sharks would fail to give way when he approached. I spied another fish, perched on a ledge, taking it easy, only to be nudged rudely by a passing shark as if to say “get up lazy bones”. I can easily see how this was the inspiration for the movies Finding Nemo and Finding Dory. The writers, producers and animators all spent a lot of time here as certain scenes are directly lifted from the reality of the aquarium tanks. I moved on to the second floor with its amazing array of deep ocean creatures which included a hammerhead shark and a sea turtle. The aquarium also preserved a bit of the cannery itself, giving a historical edge to the environment that isn’t necessarily in its prime directive.
The aquarium takes its educational endeavor seriously. In addition to the traditional exhibits that describe what you are looking at, they are also using an approach that caught me off guard at first, but made sense in the long run. The technique is this, instead of having patrons come to you and ask you questions, employees would actively seek out groups of people and make themselves available for questions. I found it encouraged learning and gave an extra layer of human interaction to what I was experiencing. I also encountered a number of volunteers who were manning the touch pools, happy to help you have a one-on-one encounter with nature in the form of a starfish or a bat ray (my favorite). I also learned from them that the aquarium’s otter conservation program not only releases otters back into the wild, but also supplies otters to most of the major aquariums in North America, the Shedd being one of them. I love this aquarium and consider the $50.00 money well spent.
Worn out a bit, I left the aquarium and collected the van and Mavis. I considered eating dinner in the Cannery Row area, but was slightly disappointed to realize that it reminded me of Navy Pier in Chicago and Baltimore’s Inner Harbor in that it had a bunch of chain and/or overpriced restaurants of dubious quality as well as touristy yet expensive shops. I remembered I vowed to myself I’d have ramen tonight, so I got a room at the Motel 6, warmed some water in the coffee maker, ate my makeshift dinner and crashed.
Pictures below: A.) Mr. Alpha Grouper, B.) Mr. Lazybones, C.-H.) Life in the Kelp Forest I.) The giant octopus cowers in the corner of his habitat, away from those annoying camera flashes. J.) Giant sea clams. K.) Sea crustaceans. L.) A trick of photography- a tiger shark swims about a foot below a sleeping duck. M.-N.) The exterior of the aquarium and the view from their deck onto the ocean. O.) The remains of the sardine works left as a remnant of what Cannery Row was in the 1930's-1940's. P.-Q.) Teaching plaque of John Steinbeck and his books set in Cannery Row. R.) An otter livin' the life.