Monterey Bay Aquarium Gives Visitors a Thrill
Tucked away in a warehouse behind the Monterey Bay Aquarium, marine biologists keep deep, damp secrets.
A large cylindrical tank holds four purple-striped jellyfish, the first ever bred in captivity. Nearby, two ocean sunfish bob in a swimming pool-sized tank, part of an effort to keep the warm-water beasts alive after currents sweep them into the chill waters of Monterey Bay.
Behind the scenes, researchers prepare projects for months and years before the public gets to see what they have been up to.
Yet less than five years after it opened on Oct. 20, 1984, the $50-million Monterey Bay Aquarium is far from secret. It ranks with Disneyland, the San Diego Zoo and Knott’s Berry Farm as one of the state’s most popular attractions, according to the state Office of Tourism.
‘Like the Golden Gate’
“I think I’ve always known about the Monterey Bay Aquarium,” said visitor Judy Gray of Atlanta on a recent weekday. “It’s like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.”
The aquarium’s delights are many. Sea otters remain the most popular attraction, but visitors rave about the three-story-high, 335,000-gallon kelp forest centerpiece display that greets them just inside the door.
A dimly lit corridor snaking along the main 90-foot-long Monterey Bay Habitat display gives visitors the impression that they are viewing the sea from the ocean floor.
In some ways, the aquarium is better than the real thing, according to scuba diver Jack Orlove, who toured the facility recently.
“When you’re in their environment, it’s kind of scary,” he said, and equipment and fear can create a feeling of separation that does not exist at the aquarium.
The nonprofit aquarium about 100 miles south of San Francisco, built with a gift from David and Lucile Packard of computer giant Hewlett-Packard fame, enjoys a reputation as one of the finest in the world. A team of marine biologists is working to keep it that way.
Fresh sea water is pumped into the tanks to nourish animals and plants. Because rocks are too heavy for most of the displays, artificial boulders made of fiberglass were placed on the ocean floor two years before opening day to create that weathered look and attract specimens.
“Everything is so beautiful,” said Kathleen Stephens, visiting from Redding, about 350 miles to the northeast. “I have never been to an aquarium like this before. I’m amazed.”
The “touch pools” are popular with children and adults alike.
“It was really neat because they’re really smooth,” 10-year-old Isaac Pierce said after stroking a bat ray as it swam by. “They are kind of slimy but really smooth. Silky smooth.”
For the first time, the aquarium has mounted a temporary exhibit devoted to marine life from beyond the Monterey Bay area. “Mexico’s Secret Sea” displays spectacular tropical fish and other creatures native to the Sea of Cortez, situated between Baja California and the Mexican mainland.
By choosing the Sea of Cortez, administrators took advantage of novelist John Steinbeck’s historical link to Monterey. Steinbeck and good friend Ed (Doc) Ricketts, a noted marine biologist and resident of Monterey, ventured to the gulf area in 1940 for a six-week expedition during which they collected thousands of specimens and catalogued 60 species new to science.
A team of aquarium researchers made a similar expedition to collect the animals for the 6,000-square-foot exhibit, which closes Sept. 4.
In the shallow reef tank, bright yellow long nose butterfish dart among red-spotted coral hawkfish and black-and-white speckled Pacific boxfish. In a nearby tank, toothy moray eels peek from behind rocks, evoking squeals of delight and disgust from passing schoolchildren.
“I don’t like them,” declared 8-year-old Lora Kihorany of Soquel. “They can bite you. He is long. I mean, long!”
The exhibit is part of a strategy intended to draw more repeat visitors. About 35% of the 1.7 million people who visited in 1988 had been to the aquarium before, said spokesman Tim Lucas.
Future temporary exhibits will include “Living Treasures of the Pacific,” scheduled to open Oct. 21 in conjunction with the aquarium’s fifth anniversary, and a “Sharks of the World” show.
There is some controversy. Some locals complain the crush of visitors causes traffic problems and is turning historically funky Cannery Row into a tourist trap. A few nearby merchants complain about unwanted competition from the aquarium’s gift shop and restaurant.
But a new 1,000-space municipal parking lot has helped alleviate crowding, and most merchants say the aquarium has ushered in a welcomed business boom.
Business at Sly McFly’s Bar and Grille has jumped more than 25% since the aquarium opened down the block, said general manager Kristan Soboleski.
“Nobody likes to see the Row change,” she said. Yet she cringes at the memory of past slow winters.
Meanwhile, officials are mum on expansion plans, although Lucas confirmed some are in the works.
Aquarists are delighted with the aquarium’s scientific accomplishments. The facility is a pioneer in the in-captivity breeding of the purple-striped jellyfish.
In the clear plastic tank out back, four of the mesmerizing creatures undulated gently.
“Nobody has ever seen the young of this species before,” said Dave Powell, director of animal husbandry. “Only adults.”
Researchers collected adults, got them to spawn and raised the young, he explained. Several young specimens are on public display, and the upcoming Pacific exhibit will feature jellyfish that will become part of the permanent collection.
Powell likes the challenge of hard-to-promote creatures like the jellyfish, which he said many know only as “a blob on the beach.”
“It’s kind of fun to exhibit animals that people wouldn’t think of or don’t consider attractive,” he said, reaching out to pat a bobbing ocean sunfish. “Sea otters are easy. They look cuddly.”
“Everything out there is real neat if you know about it,” Powell said.
Not all research efforts are successful. A small great white shark accidentally caught by a local fisherman died in captivity after refusing to eat for 11 days.
But the aquarium’s numerous successes clearly bolster the team of about 20 aquarists, all of whom are scuba divers.
“The aquarium is sort of like an onion,” said aquarist Bruce Upton. “The more you look, the deeper you can go. People spend two hours here, but they could spend their lives.”