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A Beauty by the Bay : Science: 17 million visitors have made the Monterey Bay Aquarium the nation’s most popular.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Kelp rises more than 20 feet from the sandy bottom, waving gracefully with the pulse of the sea. Sardines are merely a gray smudge in the water--until they turn and the dim light transforms them into a shimmering silver cloud.

Sea otters play and snooze on the rocks nearby, as stilts look for worms in the damp sand between the reeds and the surf.

Such realistic displays have made the Monterey Bay Aquarium a model since its opening a decade ago, and the 17.5 million visitors it has attracted thus far make it the most popular aquarium in the nation, too.

“It is certainly the finest aquarium in the country, without question,” said Raymond Chavez, a film producer for the San Francisco-based Marine Mammal Fund. “They’ve really found a balance between education and entertainment.”

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The aquarium, about 100 miles south of San Francisco, at once teaches and enchants by taking visitors through the many worlds along and beneath the waves.

More than 100 exhibits and galleries display about 500 different plant and animal species that inhabit the shore, wharves, deep reefs and sea floor. A huge new wing under construction will offer glimpses at the bay’s outer waters and the deep sea beyond.

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Even on weekdays, visitors crowd around the sea otter exhibit, oohing and ahhing over the young animals that were rescued and will be returned to the sea. They gingerly pet bat rays that glide through a shallow sandy pool or try to catch giant octopuses changing color.

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They wonder at the three-story-high kelp forest--the world’s tallest aquarium exhibit--then stroll along an aviary that reproduces a sandy beach. Then, they can watch live television programs broadcast from a research submarine exploring the depths of the bay.

“I love it. I just like to see all the big fish,” 9-year-old Russell Hall of Piedmont, Calif., said as he admired foot-long steelhead trout in an indoor-outdoor exhibit that reproduces a coastal stream. “I like the trout best,” he said. “And I like the rays--they feel slippery.”

Visitors come from all over the world.

“I don’t think it dawned on us even the day it opened that it would be so successful,” said Steve Webster, a marine biologist who heads the aquarium’s education programs.

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The whole thing sprang from an idea Webster and three colleagues had in 1977. The four marine biologists, who were conducting research in Monterey at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Center, realized that a closed-down sardine-packing factory on nearby Cannery Row was a good place for an aquarium.

One of the scientists was Nancy Burnett, daughter of Silicon Valley pioneer and philanthropist David Packard. And Packard had just happened to ask his family to find a worthy project they could make their own.

Packard and his wife, Lucille, formed a foundation that paid $55 million to build the aquarium, intended to foster public interest in investigating and protecting the sea.

An additional $13 million went into the creation of the aquarium’s sister institution, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

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Now 82, Packard has helped develop exhibits and is still president of the aquarium’s board. Another daughter, Julie Packard--also a marine biologist--is the aquarium’s director.

Monterey Bay was an ideal place for such an ambitious project. The region already was a magnet for tourists, and nutrients welling up from the cold depths of a huge offshore canyon give the region an amazing variety of marine life.

The bay’s relatively clean waters also offered an unusual opportunity. The museum pumps up to 3 million gallons of seawater a day through its exhibits, including the kelp forest in its 335,000-gallon tank. The unfiltered water carries the spores of algae and larvae of invertebrates, completing the virtually natural environments in the displays.

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As impressive as the exhibits are, Webster and other aquarium officials are proudest of its educational accomplishments--fostering knowledge and love of the bay and the ocean beyond.

Seventy-thousand school children visit the aquarium at no charge each year. The aquarium also hits the road with programs reaching another 20,000 youngsters a year. And 1,500 teachers annually take part in programs to improve their knowledge of science and environmental issues.

“As there are more and more people . . . it puts coastal parts of the ocean in greater and greater jeopardy and more and more stress,” Webster said. “So I think the importance of educating people and keeping them aware of the coastal ocean is an ongoing problem. It’s not going to diminish.”


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