Monterey began as a canning community where everyone in town were involved in the sardine industry. A few of its original warehouses along Cannery Row have been converted to restaurants, shops, galleries and most notably, the aquarium. Some old cannery buildings have been left to decay along the shore. Seated beside the ocean at Schooner’s Restaurant, we watched sail boats, sea kayakers, dolphin and sea lions while we savoured a late afternoon, seafood lunch after our first day of discovery at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Monterey is now a tourist destination featuring high-end hotels, shops and eateries. The heritage of Cannery Row is celebrated throughout the town in banners, sidewalk tiles and sculptures. Author John Steinbeck’s fame is honoured here for his book titled “Cannery Row” as well as his empathy for the rough and challenging lifestyle of the times. Fisherman’s Wharf features a row of seafood restaurants each boasting the best chowder, candy stores and souvenir shops where every item features a fish, boat, shell or seal. We both had cradled a bowl of warming chowder, one recommended by a local; as we strolled along the docks beside the grey and misty harbour. The Marina is packed with fishing and sailing boats and the Old Monterey Fish Company remains busy with the daily catch selling to the restaurants and the general public. The memory of the cultural happenin’ “Monterey International Pop Festival” in 1967, is only a faded memory in the old County Fairgrounds where it took place. The concert marked the ‘Summer of Love” and represented California’s counterculture. Check out some old footage on U-Tube or watch the DVD of the festival showing greats like The Who, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Ravi Shankar and Otis Redding.
A few years ago we watched an intriguing documentary on the construction of the Open Sea Exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The incredible viewing window constructed of 13 inch thick acrylic, holds back a million gallons of seawater. The tremendous exhibits and leading edge conservation philosophies have made Monterey’s Aquarium a world renowned sight and a destination at the top of our list. The Aquarium was built in a restored Sardine Factory and a fine display of photographs, machinery and memorabilia from the 1800’s, inform and honour the past. The old boilers and machines used in the canning process give great insight into the canning industry. We purchased a two-day pass and needed that time to effectively view all the displays.
Our journey began at the Kelp Forest where twenty eight foot high kelp reach for the sunlight at the top of the tank. It grows about four inches a day and requires a weekly trim. The schools of Sardines were fascinating as they traversed the tank together, flashing their silver backs with the rhythm of a disco beat. Around them swam Leopard Sharks, Sea Turtles, a crazy lumbering Garibaldi, who stopped at the window as if to peer out at us, some stocky Rock Fish, and a number of Cabazon who “hung” in the kelp leaves snoozing. In a fifteen minute program, a diver entered the tank and was literally swarmed as he hand fed the masses of fish. All the tanks are refreshed constantly with seawater from the Monterey Bay. Later in the same area, an Albatross was on display with her keeper. Injured, she will spend her days living at the aquarium and helping to educate the public about her amazing species. Note that my photos do no justice to the displays or the creatures therein. You must experience them in person!
I can stare at you too!
just hangin’ out in the kelp forest
There are a numbers of smaller displays where a variety of urchins, coral, crabs, seaweeds, sand dollars, rays, seahorse and shellfish could be observed. Throughout the Aquarium, there are experts who will answer questions or provide insight. There are many touch pools where hands-on experiences are encouraged. Enthusiastic school groups flocked to those areas taking more I-phone pictures than actually looking at things first hand. Oh technology! Do I sound like I am 99 years old?
An exciting display format can be viewed in a number of areas at the Aquarium. There are plexiglass cylinders that hold hundreds of Anchovies who swim together round and round as if in a centrifuge. Their movements are mesmerizing and looking closely, you can see their mouths opening and closing regularly to take in the food particles. In a large circular room, a huge aquarium panel follows the curve of the walls. Spectators stand in the middle and turn with the movement of the Anchovies revolving around the giant ring; a silver and blue spectacle. In another display, glass walls allow viewing of Mackerel who swim together in one direction and the movement never ceases as if it is a film loop playing over and over. Hand out the popcorn we could watch for hours!
The highlight of our day were the two large Octopus. Each cephalopod had its own space and they were both very active while we watched them unfurl their legs, twist upwards, apply and unstick their suckers from the glass and roll over with a gentle motion. The lighting made them glow purple with orange highlights against the blue waters. Both played with their “floaty toys”. We were fascinated by them and learned, on our second day at the aquarium, that we were extremely lucky to have seen them in action as on our second day, they lay curled and motionless so that visitors were not even sure what they were viewing.
There are outdoor viewing decks of the ocean around the Aquarium where visitors can watch seabirds, experience the changing tide and view, dolphin, sea lions and otters. They even provide binoculars for guests to borrow; what a brilliant idea! Many exhibits show the negative impacts that humans have had on the oceans and sea life. They promote awareness and provide many suggestions for people to help the environment. A Seafood Watch consumer guide is available in pocket-size, listing best choices of fish to eat and those to avoid. For information, go to seafoodwatch.org Visitors can stand under a glass dome as a powerful wave crashes over top. As you look up at the mass of water and hear its roar, you feel the excitement of the sea and respect its power. Outside, the wave splashes into a pool where seabirds and aquarium guests get cooled with salty spray.
Aquarium Day Two: Penguins, Sea Otters, Open Sea, Jellies and Tentacles!
Our day began at the Sea Otter tank where two otters on land, played in their plastic tube and sorted ice cubes from a bucket. The third one gave a close up swimming display and showed off its ability to float and rest easily on the water’s surface. It even seemed to have “a moment” with the photographer giving me a few winks and knowing smiles though the glass.
The Penguin display is wonderful as visitors can get very close to the birds. The tuxedo-wearing fowl are natural born actors and call and pose constantly for the audience to enjoy.
We watched some Tufted Puffins and Murs swimming madly underwater in pursuit of fish before we entered the amazing Special Exhibit called “The Jellies Experience”. It is one of two temporary exhibits and what a thrill it was! The tanks glow with an ethereal turquoise and lit from above with fluorescent light, the jellies look magical. Soft music sets the tone for the displays as folks watch many varieties of jellies float, seemingly free of gravity, gathering tiny food particles. It is difficult to grasp the reality of their existence, thinking at times, that you are watching an animated film or a screen saver. Their names are as interesting as their forms: Comb, Sea Nettle, Blubber, Egg Yolk, Mediterranean and Moon Jellies are a few.
Chris filmed this flashing jelly on his phone.
The Open Sea Exhibit was astounding! Its window is 35’deep x 93’wide x 52.5’ high. Visitors sit or stand in front of the massive body of water to watch Rays, Blue fin and Yellow fin Tuna, Bonito, Ocean Sunfish, Barracuda, Sea Turtles and Sharks including some bizarre looking Hammerheads and an amazing school of over 3000 Sardines. Spectators wait to see what species will swim past next, at arms reach! These are deep water fish so the lighting is appropriately low as it would be in their natural ocean habitat. We watched the mighty creatures in awe for over half an hour from our bench in the gallery. At feeding time, the room filled, the crowd was asked to sit on the floor and silence fell. From above, krill and squid and small fish were poured into the tank and nature’s hierarchy took over with the larger species feeding first, then the huge school of sardines and last, the rays, turtles and smaller species came up from the bottom, what a spectacle!
We ended our enriching visit to the Monterey Aquarium at the Special Exhibition “Tentacles”. As well as the live creatures, mankind’s age old fascination and superstitions with sea creatures were represented. Movies posters like the Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Minoan Pottery replicas, 18th Century Blown Glass and Victorian illustrations show human fear and fascination with the unusual “tentacled” entities. The tanks held a variety of Octopus, some tiny with long almost string-like tentacles, Squid, Cuddle Fish and the amazing Nautilus.
Can’t get to the Monterey Bay Aquarium for awhile? Watch Open Sea webcam on your computer!