By David Webb
The morning penguin feed is about to begin.
A short walk away, jellyfish dance and otters frolic. Within my field of view, a white sturgeon slips through the salt chuck. But right now, I’m occupied — locked in a staring contest with a 90-kilogram sea bass. And I intend on winning.
Like Sebastian sings in Disney’s The Little Mermaid,“Darling it’s better, down where it’s wetter.” And here at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, I’m about to explore the fascinating world under the sea.
Located on the shoreline in the town of Monterey, on California’s Central Coast, Monterey Bay Aquarium was recently rated the World’s Number-One Aquarium by TripAdvisor. It’s easy to see why — dozens of exhibits get visitors up-close-and-personal with Earth’s most fascinating marine species, from giant sunfish, to elusive octopus, to playful otters, to sleek sharks, to fluffy penguins and so much more.
I soon realize, as that sea bass noses the glass of its nine-metre-tall Kelp Forest exhibit, I’m never going to outstare an ichthyoid. Which is fine, as within the Kelp Forest — one of the world’s tallest indoor aquariums — there is plenty more to see. A leopard shark glides by; a red octopus hides near the barnacle-covered rocks. A so-ugly-it’s-pretty cabezon squirms through the sand-bottom; a rockfish slaloms the ethereal kelp fronds that extend toward the surface. (This kelp grows with such ferocity it needs to be trimmed nearly every day!) It is a truly stunning display; made more impressive by the fact that the vibrant forest is a re-creation of what can be found in nature along the Pacific Coast.
It’s feeding time for the African blackfooted penguins, so I run upstairs to find a crowd of all ages awaiting the show. A lively duo narrates the daily event, while within the exhibit marine biologists toss baitfish to scurrying penguins. Some of the birds are scruffy, mid-molt, and our hosts jovially point out the comical patterns that arise from uneven feather-shedding: penguin beards, moustaches and unibrows as well as the favourite — penguin muttonchops.
Leaving the penguins, I wander past sea otters, which never fail to incite a heart-warming awww from the crowd, toward a special exhibit: the Jellies Experience. Here, I walk under a circle of swimming sardines into an otherworldly, cobalt blue, undersea world of jellyfish. Species like flowerhat, elegant, spotted, blubber, moon and other jellies dance in their glowing habitats. A triad of purple-striped jellyfish do a never-ending slow-waltz for a mesmerized crowd. This could be a modern art exhibit; it’s hard to believe these creatures are alive. Science fiction has nothing on Mother Nature.
Next, one of the most popular collections awaits — Open Sea. Monterey Bay Aquarium’s largest exhibit, and the largest indoor aquarium on Earth, here, guests gaze through a 27-metre-wide window into a fast-paced spectacle of large, open-ocean marine life. I’m just in time to see the morning’s feed. As an engaging host narrates, I watch in amazement as bullet-fast bluefin tuna, massive ocean sunfish (which can reach more than 2,000 kilograms), fierce hammerhead sharks and even a turtle or two feed on baitfish dropped from above. As the Big Boys get their fill, smaller fishes like anchovies and sardines rise from the bottom to gobble the scraps, safe in knowing their natural predators have full bellies.
My self-guided tour continues through the special Tentacles Exhibit — with octopus, squid and cuttlefish on display — to the Sandy Shore & Aviary, featuring local birdlife, to Rocky Shore, where I roll up my sleeves and actually get hands-on with slimy sea life in a shallow pool. And onward I go — there’s much more to see. Yes, it truly is better, down where it’s wetter — under the sea.
However, there is also a great deal happening behind the scenes at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Mika Yoshida, Public Relations Coordinator for the aquarium, explains:
“For us, as a non-profit public aquarium, living exhibits are the most effective tools we have for changing attitudes in ways that will benefit ocean animals in the wild,” says Yoshida. “By changing public attitudes and contributing to scientific research, we believe we’re improving the survival prospects of all ocean animals. That’s the only reason for an aquarium to exist at all.”
At the aquarium, ethical treatment and proper care of all animals is of prime concern.
“The health and well-being of all the animals in our living collection is the priority for our animal care staff and our full-time staff veterinarian. These animals get top-quality care because it matters to the people who work with them, and because it is a requirement of the rigorous oversight of our operations,” continues Yoshida. “As a result of our staff’s good work, our animals show all the signs of being in good health here. Many reproduce on exhibit, which is one sure sign of good health.”
Beyond maintaining the health of the animals on-site, Monterey Bay Aquarium reaches out into the marine environment via important conservation efforts. As Yoshida explains, recent programs include saving sea otters and great white sharks, the Tagging of Pacific Predators (TOPP) program as well as the Seafood Watch program, which is, according to Yoshida, “Recognized as the leader in creating science-based recommendations that help consumers, chefs and businesses make sustainable seafood choices.”
Just like in the ocean itself, there is much more to the Monterey Bay Aquarium than meets the eye. And speaking of “meeting the eye,” there is a staring contest I need to get back to…
Visitor Fast Facts
- Monterey Bay Aquarium offers in-and-out privileges – simply stamp your hand on the way out the door and you’re welcome back throughout the day.
- On-site dining and shopping.
- The majority of the aquarium is indoors and exhibits are open year-round.
- Operating hours vary throughout the year. (Visit the online calendar.)
- There is no official Aquarium parking, but there are several options nearby.
- Skip the line — pre-purchase aquarium tickets online.
- Daily tours are offered (for an additional fee), which give visitors behind-the-scenes access.
If You Go
Monterey Bay Aquarium: http://www.montereybayaquarium.org