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Monterey: Moody Blue

The Monterey Bay Aquarium's new Outer Bay wing gets you 50 miles out and 300 feet down—without getting you wet.

Mediterranean jellyfish at Monterey Bay Aquarium, image
Photo caption
Mediterranean jellyfish are found in three seas, the Mediterranean, the Aegean, and the Adriatic.

Like a giant puffer, the Monterey Bay Aquarium suddenly got a lot bigger. Since the aquariums opening in 1984, visitors have been able to explore life in the country's largest marine sanctuary, Monterey Bay. With the opening of the Outer Bay wing, visitors now can walk among the animals and plants that live where Bay waters meet the open ocean.

Entering the Outer Bay can be disorienting. Although you go up the escalator to get there, suddenly you're beneath a drill corps-precise school of flashing, silver anchovies. Dappled light, soft and blue, ripples across the door. Unidentifiable, abstract sound of an organic mood drifts through the air. This vaguely womb-like atmosphere is as close to being 50 miles offshore and 300 feet beneath the oceans surface as most of us ever will be.

Everything in this environment but you either swims or floats. Ovoid windows in the gently curving walls reveal surprisingly sensual creatures pulsating, swimming, or just being in apparently infinite water. You might expect a gently suspended jellyfish to look like a work of art—something by Tiffany, perhaps—but in this environment even a neighboring school of mackerel, mundanely familiar from tin can labels, easily withstands the comparison. Although there's a definite progression, a thoughtful juxtaposition, of exhibit's, you're free to be either drifter or swimmer and take them in any order you want.

Eventually, you'll reach the giant, blue window. Behind it, there's a million gallons of water; the effect is of looking straight into a limitless ocean. Sharks, tuna, barracudas are among the many species that materialize from the dim blue distance, approach the windows brightness, then fade back. Big ocean sunfish, oddly truncated-looking creatures that seem to have been bitten off at the waist, swim about in apparent dreamy aimlessness.

Above, on the balcony, pew-like benches invite contemplative lingering if you visit on a relatively uncrowded day. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are you're best bet.

Beyond this room, the mood changes. Interactive exhibIt's invite exploration rather than contemplation. Big microscopes, videos, exhibIt's on weather, the food "Web" (formerly chain), currents, wind, and other influences on Bay life lead to an area that urges you to action, such as telling you're senators you want the oceans protected. The Aquarium not only supplies the post card, but the stamp, too, and looks up you're senators addresses for you. there's also a room of exhibIt's and activities for toddlers.

Of course, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is right on—in places over—Monterey Bay. Step onto the open-air balcony (where you'll find excellent telescopes for use free of charge). It's likely you'll see otters, seals, sea lions, and a wide variety ofbirds. It's possible you'll see gray whales—one recently ventured within spitting distance of the aquarium, and March is the peak of their northward migration.

Photography courtesy of Intandem/Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published in March 1996. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.