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Monterey Bay Aquarium Turns 20

The Monterey Bay Aquarium turns 20 with new exhibits and expanded scope.

Sting ray, Monterey Bay Aquarium, California, picture
Photo credit
Photo: Courtesy Monterey Bay Aquarium/Randy Wilder
Photo caption
Visitors get a chance to size up many animals, such as starfish and rays.

Like most fish stories, this one just gets better over time. In 1984, on the site of a cannery immortalized by John Steinbeck, a new attraction showcasing the splendors of the sea opened its doors. In large glass tanks designed for easy viewing, sleepy-eyed octopuses clung to coral outcrops. Slow-motion stingrays kicked up sand along the bottom while antic otters skittered across the surface, clacking shellfish like castanets.

In its first year the Monterey Bay Aquarium, built with backing from electronics mogul David Packard, drew 2.3 million visitors—twice as many as its founders expected. It brought crowds face-to-face with ocean life as it is rarely seen, in all its beauty and fragility. Visitors watched the stumbling flight of seabirds rescued from a coastal oil spill. They cooed over the nursing of an undersize otter abandoned by its mother and nicknamed Milk Dud because of its reluctance to take a bottle. They stood in the shadow of a towering kelp forest, every stalk of it transplanted from nearby waters and growing at a rate of four to six inches a day.

Every year the aquarium added new exhibits. It installed a million-gallon tank to accommodate tuna, the sports cars of the ocean. You can see their gleaming bodies warp into overdrive in the rush to feed. A beautiful fishbowl, set into the ceiling of a round display room, provided a showcase where anchovies flickered like a thousand silver dollars. Children began to grasp the ocean's wonders by dipping their fingers into tide pools.

As the aquarium grew, so did its reputation. This year, as it celebrates its 20th anniversary, Monterey's jewel has been rated in a Zagat survey as the best aquarium in the country and the third-best family attraction in the United States, after Disney World and SeaWorld in Florida. Its horizons have broadened. Once focused solely on Monterey Bay, the aquarium now casts a broad gaze on oceans everywhere. As always, the emphasis is on conservation, on ecofriendly education. But another constant is the elegance and ingeniousness of each exhibit—the aquarium succeeds in capturing underwater worlds in their essence and setting them before the viewer as aquatic art.

There's More to Monterey Than the Fish Tanks
The aquarium defines one end of Cannery Row. Just outside its doors, amid a sea of fish restaurants and stands selling fudge and saltwater taffy, you'll find attractions like Steinbeck's Spirit of Monterey Wax Museum, with statues of figures from local history such as Steinbeck and friends at La Ida, Father Serra, and Doc Ricketts in his lab.

The canneries are gone, the last one having closed in 1973, and Wing Chong's grocery, the model for the store in Stein-beck's book, is now an antique shop. But there's a sense here of past and present flowing together, of time shifting fluidly with the tide.

A 20-minute walk takes you near downtown, to Fisherman's Wharf and Monterey State Historic Park. On Fisherman's Wharf, a wide pier flanked by restaurants and shops, you'll hear two kinds of barking: the first from sea lions and the second from boat captains urging passersby to board whale-watching craft.

Monterey State Historic Park centers on the Custom House Plaza. Under Mexican rule, Monterey was the capital of Alta California and a military and cultural center. Much of its past is covered along the self-guided Path of History walking tour. Pick up a brochure at the Monterey Conven-tion and Visitors Bureau, 150 Olivier Street. The park also offers tours of buildings that include Colton Hall and the Custom House.

Farther afield, San Carlos Cathedral has been in continuous use since 1795. And the Monterey Museum of Art has two locations, one on Pacific and the other on Via Mirada. Use your AAA Monterey Peninsula Guide map, Carmel-Monterey map, and AAA Northern California & Nevada TourBook.

"Through our living exhibits, we can touch people deeply and inspire them to act on the oceans' behalf," says Packard's daughter Julie, a marine biologist herself and the aquarium's executive director. "It's something we're in a unique position to do, and it's more important now than ever."

That spirit is apparent in two of the newest exhibits. Jellies: Living Art devotes itself to the iridescent drifters, its display cases shimmering with lobed-comb jellies and sea nettles, animals with pulsing lava-lamp bodies and tentacles as frilly as lingerie. Though they have no heads, hearts, eyes, or brains, jellyfish have gotten by very well, thank you, flourishing for 650 million years, since before the dinosaurs' day. They've inspired the work of artists (the exhibit's free-form glass by Dale Chihuly sparkles as an example) and the respect of scientists, who marvel at their skill as predators. Jellies stun their prey with stinging tentacles, some more brutally than others. A jellyfish called the sea wasp, which lives in the waters around Australia, is the deadliest animal in the ocean; people have died within three minutes of its sting.

Jellies, of course, don't willfully hunt humans, and neither do sharks, a point made clear in Sharks: Myth and Mystery. This new exhibit sets its sights on the ocean's most misunderstood inhabitants, exploring the shark's place in folklore across cultures and replacing flawed perceptions with fact. Here visitors meet such little-known species as the epaulette shark (with a black spot like a porthole on each side of its body) and stumble on statistics rarely considered: Every year, more people are killed by falling coconuts than by sharks. Still, as predators, sharks are coldly efficient. They can sense blood in the water in infinitesimal concentrations. To call them born hunters would be an understatement. Sharks of some species cannibalize each other in the embryo stage.

Visitors come across these facts in a setting appropriate for learning about consumption. The aquarium stands on land once occupied by the Hovden Cannery, one of dozens of such businesses that prospered in Monterey before the sardine fisheries off the coast collapsed. In his 1945 novel named for the strip, Steinbeck described Cannery Row as "a poem, a stink, a grating noise." These days, though, Cannery Row is something more straightforward: a busy commercial stretch that caters to tourists while serving slivers of the region's past.

Recent renovations of the aquarium's facade evoke the industrial look of the Hovden Cannery. Knut Hovden, its founder, spoke of opening an aquarium in Monterey as early as the 1920s. He never did. It took some 60 years before others fulfilled Hovden's unrealized dream. It seems unlikely, though, that an institution of this scope figured in the cannery owner's wildest schemes. Perhaps nowhere in the world are the vast and vulnerable oceans brought into view so vividly. Wandering through the aquarium's halls, a visitor gets the sense of a limitless place, confined only by the boundaries of the imagination, like the storied big one that got away.

This article was first published in September 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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