While you visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the soft cry of seagulls drowns away in overhead winds. The rush of a rolling surf crashes in the distance. The taste of salty sea air dances on your tongue and fills your senses with a feeling of refreshment. Maybe you can hear the distant bark of harbor seals beneath Fisherman’s Wharf.
These immersive visuals may paint the picture of an ideal getaway while visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Monterey Peninsula of California. As one of the top tourist spots on the coast, there is a never-ending array of sightseeing expeditions, restaurants, tours, Cannery Row, and other spots and activities you may choose to add to your itinerary to make the most of this seaside destination.
As some of our family ancestors helped settle much of the Monterey Peninsula, as well as having been Carmel-by-the-Sea locals and founders, our family roots continue to call us to make the drive from our cozy home in the Northern California Sierra Foothills to the coast at least several times per year.
Whenever we make that drive, we carefully plan our itinerary to get the most to get out of our trip while avoiding peak tourist seasons and planning the weather accordingly. Among the list of “essentials” on our list is visiting Carmel Beach, hiking Pfeiffer Falls at Big Sur, enjoying Olallie berry jam with scones at the Tuck Box, visiting Fisherman’s Wharf, and of course, the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
The Aquarium’s History . . .
Before we can tell this story, we must first travel back to July, 1916.
Beginning with a Norwegian innovator and businessman named Knut Hovden, who opened his own cannery, Hovden Canning Co. on Cannery Row, Knut likely had no idea that this would become the most successful cannery in the heyday of the sardine industry. Later it would also earn him the nickname “King of Cannery Row.”
Hovden’s innovation modernized California’s sardine industry in a way that was unprecedented. Over time, this led to quite a substantial boom in the economy and eventually to many more canneries along the Western Pacific Coast.
Knut was one of the first to encourage the idea of an aquarium on the Monterey Peninsula, over 100 years ago.
But golden eras come to an end eventually. By the 50’s, the sardine fishery was collapsing. In 1973 the Hovden Canning Company closed.
In 1977 the cannery factory sat abandoned and Julie Packard made an appearance on the scene.
She had graduated from University of California, Santa Cruz just three years prior, with a BA in biology and a focus on Marine Biology.
She had fond memories as a former student studying sealife while wading through the intertidal zone in her hip waders.
Packard partnered with Nancy Burkett, her sister who earned a degree in marine biology. Their father David Packard joined forces in undertaking an ambitious venture which would one day be known as the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
While visitors tour the aquarium, they discover and enjoy several walls of historic photographs taken through the 1970’s and 80’s, detailing the aquarium’s history. Among many formidable challenges that were overcome, was building a cathedral-esque tank tall enough for kelp to grow sustainably in such a way that the visitors could view and appreciate it.
The Great Tide Pool was another incredible endeavor, serving as an economical man-made tide pool for research purposes.
A barge was used to lay down pipes for the water intake system. These pipes currently pump 2,000 gallons of seawater per minute into all the aquatic aquarium exhibits. Close to 1 billion gallons of water flow through the aquarium’s bay and back into the ocean, each and every year.
David and Lucille Packard generously gifted the construction costs, which would total $55 million. On October 20, 1984, the grand opening finally arrived, which welcomed an astounding 10,681 visitors on its very first day.
About the Aquarium . . .
The fifth largest aquarium in the United States, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is home to over 75,000 aquatic animals and plants (representing 801 species) and averages about 2 million visitors annually. As of 2021, attendance broke previous records at a staggering 67 million.
It is no question that many travelers, much like us, add this essential visit to their list of things to do in Monterey. But what makes the Monterey Aquarium any different than other aquariums in California or the rest of the United States?
The Monterey Bay Aquarium Prides itself in being “First and Only in the World” for these milestones and accolades:
- The first and only to successfully exhibit and release great white sharks, beginning in September 2004. This proved to be a milestone for aquarium history while this largely contributed to scientific study and research of great whites. Since tagging the sharks prior to their release back into the wild, researchers continue to track these mysterious ocean creatures while collecting new information about their behaviors to this day.
- The first and only aquarium to reintroduce rescued sea otter pups into the wild, and to introduce a surrogacy program. This proved so fascinating to visitors that the Monterey Bay Aquarium launched their very own YouTube channel to document and showcase many of the otter pups’ journeys, as well as the bonds they make with their adopted otter mothers.
- The only aquarium to build a living kelp forest. Standing at 28 feet and acting as a “mother board” as it feeds the 2,000 gallons of pumped seawater (per minute!) into the rest of the exhibits, this kelp forest is home to wolf-eels, leopard sharks, rockfish, garibaldi, red octopus, and a variety of many more types of fish.
- It is also the first to exhibit deep-sea cephalopods such as flapjack octopus, strawberry squid, and the elusive vampire squid.
- The only institution in the world to consistently propagate the fragile comb jelly, and one of only a handful to of aquariums to hatch and raised chambered nautilus.
As well as all of this, here are some accolades as being the only U.S. Aquarium to…
- Exhibit bluefin and yellowfin tuna.
- Exhibit ocean sunfish and pyjama squid.
- Exhibit salmon snailfish.
Some additional facts…
- In April 1986, the Monterey Bay Aquarium made a movie appearance in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Since then, it has also appeared in Pixar’s Finding Dory in 2016 prompted by the production team’s research trips.
- In 2006, the aquarium became the first (in the U.S.) to care for a Laysan albatross named Makana when she was rescued from the Hawaiian Islands with a wing injury. She now resides in the aquarium to help raise public awareness about the threats of plastic pollution.
Our Family’s Guide For Visiting The Aquarium:
Does all of this seem like a lot to take in? We don’t want you to miss a thing during your visit, so we’ll simplify things for you. Having been around the block (or let’s say, around the Row) enough times, we’ve mapped out a perfect strategy for whenever we visit the aquarium to make sure we get enough out of our day and don’t miss anything.
Of course, we like to say “To Each Their Own” to everyone, but just in case you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed, you can follow our family’s guide and suggestions for visiting the aquarium and making sure you get the most out of your visit.
It’s always important to take a map of the aquarium with you once you’ve made it through the entrance and through security. One side of your map will cover the first floor, and on the other side will show the second floor. We recommend beginning with the first floor, then slowly making your way to the second story.
Upon making it through the entrance and ticketing, you will find a history of Hovden’s Cannery. Here you can watch a movie presentation covering the cannery’s history, the inspiration behind John Steinbeck’s iconic novel, as well as educational activities for children. This section is also home to a variety of specimens preserved in jars of formaldehyde from the 1910s-1930s, including the famous giant squid which is photographed with marine biologist Ed Ricketts in 1936.
Veering left, you will be led to the famed Kelp Forest. Here, you may ask docents information about the many types of species this large exhibit hosts, including sardines, rockfish, California sheephead, giant sea bass, leopard shark, red octopus, garibaldi, wolf-eel, and a variety of many others. You may be lucky enough to wave through the window at a diver making a plunge into the kelp forest every once in a while.
Once you’ve gone through the mesmerizing Kelp Forest, things may start to get a little darker on the rest of your journey. This is because the low-lights in this narrow section of the aquarium provide the perfect conditions for optimum viewing of these spectacular deep sea creatures you will observe. Among these is the aquarium’s famous red octopus. Further down, you will pass more elusive creatures such as prawns, dabs, moral eel, and completely intact ling cod and wolf-eel skeletons.
You will then make your way around Monterey Bay Habitats, an hourglass-shaped exhibit, over 90 feet long and home to five different habitats beneath the bay. There, you will observe rockfish, white sturgeon, bat ray, cabezon, and the notorious broadnose seven gill shark.
Further down, you will discover one of the highlights (or at least, it’s a highlight for us) of the entire aquarium: the Aviary. Mud flats and marshes flourishing with life, you will have the incredible opportunity to watch these birds scratch their long legs in the sand and forage with their reliable beaks for insects exactly as they would in the wild. Among these fascinating birds are black-necked stilts, long-billed curlew, the everybody’s beloved sandpiper. A wave breaker flows into this aviary, providing a fresh supply of insects and microorganisms which serve as natural prey for these birds every hour of the day.
Beyond this section, you will find a room of immersive touch pools, including ghostly bat rays, anemone, sea urchins, and many types of crab which you can physically interact with in the touch pools. Please keep in mind, however, that though some of these living creatures may be small enough to hold in our hand, they are alive and cannot survive outside of their pools, so please keep them inside of the water while interacting. Sanitizers are stationed nearby to disinfect any bacteria before or after interacting.
If you decided to veer to the right upon entrance, you will pass the Great Tide Pool and find front row seats to the sea otter tank, where you can watch them perform lively acrobatics for you as they play with their floating toys. We like to plan out viewing this exhibition when the feeding occurs at 10:30, but it gets crowded quickly so you should bet on showing up a few minutes prior to feeding for a good viewing spot.
If you need a bite to eat, then past the sea otter exhibition you will find the aquarium’s cafe. Here is a variety of food options, including soups and seafood sandwiches. Many beverage options are also offered, including alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, kombucha, milk, soda, coffee, and more. Afterwards, you may choose between a decadent eclair or an anemone-shaped chocolate cupcake for dessert. You can even enjoy wildlife sightings from the huge glass windows in the seating area of the cafe.
Lastly on the first floor, you will walk through the dark hallways of Into The Deep, where the largest collection of deep-sea animals in North America from transparent glowing jellyfish to football-sized giant isopods resides. Because this exhibit is so large, it is divided into three sections.
The first is Midwater. These are the animals that lie between sunlit water and the deep seawater. Here, life flourishes with virtually no light, no boundaries, and very few places to hide.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium was the first to successfully determine what conditions were needed to keep these creatures alive, and though they may do fine at surface pressure, they require icy cold water, and at times need oxygen removed from their water. Here lives the vampire squid, deep-sea anglerfish, scallop comb jelly, blood-belly comb jelly, flapjack octopus, lobed comb jelly, and sea-gooseberry to name just a few.
Second is the Seafloor, where a diversity of cryptid crustaceans and cephalopods reside beneath the muddy debris of thousands of feet below the surface. Most notable are the big-eyed octopus, beaded comb jelly, big red jelly, and giant isopod among more.
Lastly, you’ll reach what’s On The Horizon. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has an impressive inventory, to be sure, as we’ve only covered a few of the 801 species they harbor. With the Monterey Aquarium being a top forerunner and achieving so many milestones, a guest can wonder, what’s next? The deep sea is one of the least explored habits on Earth and the least accessible. There is so much more to discover. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Team continues to dedicate itself to researching and studying new and ever-changing ocean life; they want to share it with the world. That’s why it’s worth a few minutes during your visit to check out the 3:00pm Behind-the-Scenes tour and learn what’s on the horizon.
The second floor of the aquarium has even more to explore, and is easily accessible from either wings of the building. We recommend for the best experience beginning with the right wing, which begins with the signature donut-shaped glass of schooling sardines.
You will notice the lighting gets dimmer here as you are pulled into the immersive experience of the jellies. The Monterey Bay Aquarium hosts colorful diversity of these brainless, astronaut-like creatures. Among some of the popular: the Pacific Sea Nettle, the mesmerizing Moon jelly, the exquisite purple-striped jelly, lion’s mane jelly, and many more varieties. So famous are the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s jellies that they have installed a live jelly cam often uploaded on their YouTube channel for visitors to study and enjoy at home.
This portion of the experience will prepare you for Open Sea tank, which in our opinion, is the most impressive tank the aquarium has to offer. Holding 1.2 million gallons and and standing at 35 feet tall, this tank historically marked the first time great white sharks were successfully displayed between 2004-2011. Some visitors may be intimidated by these titanic giants floating like great ghosts across a 90-feet display window: sea turtles, stingrays, hammerhead sharks, dolphinfish, and the apex yellowfin tuna.
It is well worth your visit to plan your schedule around the Open Sea feeding at 11:00am, and remember to arrive ten to fifteen minutes early for prime viewing.
Past the Open Sea is the entertaining penguin and puffin display. Many of these penguins and puffins have been rescued and are in the process of rehabilitation, while many will remain as permanent residents. Some of the aquarium’s oldest penguin residents are Velma (born 1992) and Molopo (1994). Plan your schedule around the 3:00pm feeding and watch how these unique birds each have their own distinct personality and mannerisms as they communicate and participate with their audience.
If you have a large family with small children, this will be the perfect opportunity on your tour to take a break at the play zone locating by the penguins, where children can interact with educational fun.
Crossing the bridge to the left wing on the second floor, life-sized humpback and orca whales hover over your path, making for our one of our favorite spots for pictures. Up to 2,000 whales are estimated to seasonally migrate through Monterey Bay’s coastal waters every year, traveling up to 30 miles per day. Monterey Bay’s coastline sees the largest concentration of blue whales in the world.
The last visit on your tour will be the Splash Zone, where you have the opportunity to get your hands wet in some touch pools and interact with a host of live creatures. Pay a visit to the ray petting zoo, and stick around for the ray feeding at 1:30.
This is only our most recommended tour guide based on personal experience, but we encourage you to cater and personalize your guide to you and your family.
The aquarium has come a long way from the days when it first opened in the 80’s when I would meander inside on cold and rainy days with my friends after school got out. Over the years I have been blessed to watch it evolve and grow and to cover its new exhibits and offerings in many of my different travel columns and on my radio show.
We hope you walk away with as much education, history, fascination and pure wonder as we do with every yearly visit we make to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Carmel L. Mooney is an author, coach, travel columnist and speaker with over 5000 travel articles published in national magazines, newspapers, and blogs. She had a travel and dining radio show for 23 years on KJAY 1430 AM, KMYC 1410 AM, and KAHI 950 AM radio. She is a past member of The North American Travel Journalist Association and of Travel Media Showcase. She has taught writing and publishing at Sierra College, Butte College, Solano College and has been a writing coach since 1999.