Monterey Bay Aquarium Awash in a Tide of Visitors


People are flocking by the thousands each day to Cannery Row, not to see the row of fish canneries made famous by novelist John Steinbeck, but to visit the huge Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The aquarium, perched on the edge of Monterey Bay about 100 miles south of San Francisco and at the end of an undersea canyon as large and deep as the Grand Canyon, opened last October.

Without spending a dime for advertising, the sophisticated, oceanfront complex has already drawn nearly 2 million visitors.

The aquarium was built with some of the most advanced aquarium technology available and was laid out to give visitors an indoor-outdoor experience of Pacific Coast marine life, director Julie Packard said.


“We didn’t intend for people to come and just stand in the dark to stare at tank after tank,” said Packard, a marine biologist whose father, David Packard, donated an estimated $40 million to finance the project.

Forest in a Tank

The aquarium does have tanks, lots of them, including one nearly three stories high--the first to contain a living kelp forest.

But one of its most attractive features is an outdoor walkway overlooking the roiling ocean. On stormy days, waves crash against the building’s foundations and overflow an outdoor tide pool where sea otters come and go.


The aquarium, billed as the largest in the United States when it opened, was conceived by a small group of local marine biologists in 1977.

Architects designed it to resemble the Hovden Cannery that once occupied the same site and that Steinbeck described in his 1945 novel “Cannery Row.” The boilers once used for canning sardines remain intact in a courtyard.

Small Tanks, Big Tanks

Inside, small tanks teeming with creatures captured from shale reefs, the sandy ocean bottom and deep waters of the Pacific surround two large tanks--one called The Kelp Forest and the other, Monterey Bay.


The kelp forest, nearly three stories tall, is a display of the towering, brownish seaweed, which grows as much as a foot a day and reaches 100 feet in length.

“Although kelp forests have always been viewed as extremely productive ecosystems, no one until now has successfully tried to build that habitat,” Packard said.

Seawater is pumped into the tank at night to bring in nutrients directly from the ocean. Before the aquarium opens in the morning, the water is filtered so that visitors get a clear view.

A giant plunger at one end of the tank simulates the motion of waves. Moving water is necessary for the health of a kelp forest.


‘A Giant Experiment’

“It is a giant experiment. But the forest is growing--not as fast as in the natural field--but doing well,” Packard said.

The Monterey Bay tank is lower but longer, and shaped like an hourglass. The shape accommodates sharks and spiny dogfish, which must swim continuously to survive. The tank’s 90-foot straightaway gives the sharks a long glide path for resting and breathing.

The tanks’ windows were manufactured in Japan of plastic up to seven inches thick. Plastic can be made thicker than glass without causing distortion.


The aquarium’s builders avoided using metal in the tanks because fish are disturbed by low-level electrical fields created by metal in seawater. Plastic fasteners were used in attaching tank windows.

The aquarium has more than 140 fish species, 140 algae and about 220 invertebrates, all collected in the bay.

There also are 15 birds in a Sandy Shore exhibit. One end of it has a small sandy beach, lapped by waves produced by a wave-making machine.

Designed by Packard


David Packard, co-founder of the Hewlett-Packard electronics company, helped design the wave-making machine as well as other devices in the aquarium that simulate the movement of the ocean.

Packard, who serves as chairman of the Monterey Bay Foundation board, is designing a video camera display that visitors will be able to manipulate to view invertebrate animals.

After the aquarium opened, there was consternation among the 30,000 residents of Monterey who were not ready for the huge crowds.

“The attendance exceeded everyone’s expectations,” said Julie Packard. “We just weren’t prepared to handle the traffic and parking problems.”


She thinks the aquarium and city officials will be able to solve those problems. At any rate, she points out, 40% to 45% of the people living on the Monterey Peninsula are now members of the aquarium.