Holy mackerel, that’s a great white!

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Dawn is coming soon. The lights are off, the sound system silent and the beasts of the Monterey Bay Aquarium have the place mostly to themselves: the otters, the anemones, the octopuses, the great white shark in the big tank, the lame young albatross in its rooftop cage -- and Kacey Kurimura, who’s at the kitchen sink in her apron and waterproof boots, reaching for a knife.

Maybe the sea never sleeps, but this is how the day begins at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Before this one is over, 2,881 visitors will troop through, that young shark will fill up on a mere 3 1/2 pounds of fish, the albatross will dance with a new friend. And the jellyfish expert will get stung, which happens about three times a week.

But first, Kurimura has to do her thing. Beginning about 6 a.m., she whips up more than 200 pounds of food: krill for the anchovies and sardines; chopped clams and fish heads for the Pacific mackerel; capelin and night smelt for the penguins; shrimp and squid for the bat rays; and restaurant-grade, wild-caught Alaskan salmon for the great white shark, which will choose mackerel instead.

About 7 a.m., three hours before the doors open to the public, senior systems operator Harold “Budj” McDill makes his morning rounds.

The aquarium life-support system can be run remotely for hours on end -- with a laptop and a good Wi-Fi connection, McDill and his colleagues can monitor 10,000 data points -- but you can’t beat the value of a stroll around the property. McDill crisscrosses the building’s concrete bowels, checking pump housings for anomalies.


Somebody has cued up the music -- a stew of swelling atmospheric tones that the aquarium commissioned years ago from composer John Huling. The lights come up, so the tank backdrops have that deep blue infinity glow and the quotes on the walls are illuminated, including this one from natural science writer Loren Eiseley:

“If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”

The Monterey Bay Aquarium opened 25 years ago this week, paid for with about $55 million from computer mogul David Packard and his wife, Lucile. It was built on the 3.3-acre site of the old Hovden Cannery on Monterey’s Cannery Row and was dramatically expanded in 1996, then renovated again in 2005. The aquarium has become one of the state’s leading tourist attractions, drawing about 1.8 million visitors a year. Julie Packard, daughter of David and Lucile, is the executive director and vice chairman of the institution’s board of trustees.

Although the number of accredited aquariums in the U.S. has increased from 18 to 40 in the 25 years since Monterey Bay opened, it remains the only one to successfully exhibit great white sharks, and it has pioneered the display of jellyfish and deep-sea animals. Moreover, with its advice on what seafoods consumers should eat and chefs should serve, the aquarium has taken an influential role in the debate over sustainable fishing practices.

“They are a definite leader,” says Kristin Vehrs, executive director of the Maryland-based Assn. of Zoos & Aquariums, which accredits aquariums. “They do a great job of balancing the crowd-pleasing with the rigor of the education and conservation programs. They’ve also been good at sharing” expertise with other institutions.

That doesn’t make it a perfect place. In January, management bumped the aquarium’s price for adults by $5 to $29.95, surely unwelcome news for any family. (It’s now $6 pricier than Long Beach’s Aquarium of the Pacific.)

But in the larger picture, if you’re a tourist visiting California’s Central Coast, you’d be crazy to ignore this place. Some of the reasons for the aquarium’s popularity are as obvious as a dozen orange jellyfish hovering before a vivid blue background. Others become clearer with a glimpse behind the scenes. It takes an array of people and hardware to keep the place running, including 420 workers and about 1,250 active volunteers. The water comes straight from the bay, about 2,000 gallons a minute, sucked in through one of two 16-inch intake pipes, then filtered and piped throughout the aquarium, mostly at the ambient temperature of the bay’s water. This morning, it’s 54 degrees.

Ten minutes before the 10 a.m. opening, guest experience ambassadors Nancy Larkin and Korina Sanchez delicately scoop a few little jellyfish into tubes and carry them out to show visitors as they wait in line.

“Welcome,” says Larkin, facing the day’s first customers. “I’m going to help you figure out what to do today.”

At 11 a.m., it’s time to throw food into the big Outer Bay tank -- 85 pounds of it, tossed from above into 1.2 million gallons of sea water, setting off a flurry of darting, shoving, dodging and snapping among the fish. To watch, visitors gather on two levels, packed several deep -- but not as densely as the thousands of sardines that swim together like a shimmering silver cloud on the other side of the acrylic window.

With them swim half a dozen needle-thin barracuda, about 100 mackerel, a pair of Galápagos sharks and about a dozen yellowfin and bluefin tuna, which can weigh up to 600 pounds -- and can occasionally swim right into the wall.

Several have died over the years, including a 239-pound bluefin that slammed into a 13-inch-thick acrylic wall on a Sunday afternoon in July 2007. (To reduce the odds of such mishaps, curators try to show the fish their limits by setting up “bubble walls,” with air hoses sending bubbles in front of the window all night.)

This morning, the aquarium’s Kristin Molle, working the microphone, notes that for fishing boats, tuna are “the No. 1 money-making fish in the ocean.” And she touts the aquarium’s Seafood Watch cards, designed to nudge consumers toward stable species when shopping for seafood.

Meanwhile, up above the tank, Manny Ezcurra, the associate curator of sharks and rays, is thinking about one big swimmer in particular. He affixes a mackerel to a line on a pole and drags it along the top of the water.

“If she’s hungry . . .,” he starts to say, and a toothy maw breaks the surface, grabs the fish, then dips below. This is the great white shark that came to the aquarium on Aug. 26, a 5-foot, 3-inch, 85-pound juvenile female. She’s expected to stay several months before being released into the wild.

Ezcurra strings up another mackerel, and there’s a meek little splash, a flash of teeth, and the shark grabs again. And again. Soon five mackerel are gone.

Salmon was a favorite among the four other great whites the aquarium has briefly housed. But this one -- “she just spits them out,” says Ezcurra. “She just likes the mackerel.”

Meanwhile, many tourists duck into the aquarium’s Portola restaurant or the self-service cafe for lunch. (Along with the usual pizza, pasta, sandwiches and burgers, the eateries have served seafood from the beginning.) Others fan out among the many family-friendly chain eateries and retailers along Cannery Row.

The wise ones know not to expect a gritty bohemian waterfront. Cannery Row these days resembles its raffish old self about the same way Bubba Gump (whose shrimp restaurant stands next to the neighborhood’s spotless new InterContinental hotel) resembles John Steinbeck.

About 1:30 p.m., as many visitors return, Ezcurra climbs up to feed the great white again, which makes it 3 1/2 pounds of mackerel for the day, and bird specialist Eric Miller wheels his biggest client out to a public area on a cart.

This bird looks like a sea gull, but bigger, with a wingspan of 5 1/2 feet.

It’s a Laysan albatross, nicknamed Makana, that suffered a damaged wing at a tender age. When able-bodied, these birds routinely fly staggering distances -- crossing as many as 550 miles of Pacific Ocean in a day -- partly because they apparently can sleep while gliding.

But this bird, whose wing cannot be mended, has spent two-thirds of her life at the aquarium. She seems to enjoy interaction with visitors, and her keepers are eager to keep her busy with “enrichment” activities -- but for visitors, there is a risk.

Frequently and without warning, Makana spews “super salty bird snot,” Molle warns the gathering crowd, which stops creeping forward. The presentation goes smoothly, and Miller and Makana are soon back at the bird’s rooftop roost. It’s time for a little training.

“Makana,” says Miller. “Deck!”

The bird does nothing.

“Makana. Deck!”

Nothing again.

“As you can see, she doesn’t always listen,” says Miller, who was hoping Makana would hop to the deck.

But Makana can be counted on to dance, even with a perfect stranger.

Some call it a mating dance. But it’s more like speed-dating. You stand a foot away from her, eye to eye, and she bobs her head. And chirps.

You do the same. This spurs more zealous bobbing and chirping, and then Makana leans back to howl like a coyote at the moon. The aquarium people call this “skymooing.”

Next, Makana clacks her bill -- a startling display of jaw-rattling that sounds like a snare drum falling down the stairs. It’s riveting and a little scary. So ends the date.

But it’s good that Makana gets interactions like these. Some albatrosses live to 60, so she could be here 57 more years.

At 2:30 p.m., jellyfish specialist Chad Widmer stands in his lab. Jellyfish were not Widmer’s first career -- not long after graduation from Tujunga’s Verdugo Hills High School in 1988, he found himself driving a tank for the Army -- but they are his vocation now.

He played a key role in assembling Monterey Bay’s striking jellyfish displays and has written a “how-to” jellyfish book for aquarium people. He has tasted krill (“it’s sweet; it bursts in your mouth”) and, with all the jellies he handles, he expects three good stings per week.

He sticks a finger into the mouth of one jelly to show how it eats. He tells how to spur procreation by dropping the tank temperature a few degrees. He nods at a few button-sized creatures that look as if they were recently dredged from the bottom of the sea.

“These are new to science,” he says. Turns out they were recently dredged from the bottom of the sea by an unmanned vessel.

On the way out of the lab, a visitor notices a strange jumble of shapes in one of Widmer’s tanks, right where a filter normally would be found. They’re plastic Army men, doing the job of a filter. Widmer hates to overspend on supplies.

“Can you tell I was a poor kid?” he asks.

Now, it’s late afternoon. A diver in the kelp forest reaches into his bucket to distribute some of the food prepared by Kurimura that morning. It’s a squid, and it vanishes among the leopard sharks and yellowtail.

In the sea horse area, a weedy sea dragon, an astonishing foot-long creature of black, blue and yellow, drifts in a tank, barely distinguishable from the plants.

And then, at 6 p.m., a polite but firm female voice takes over the public-address system: “Ladies and gentlemen, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is now closed.”

The gift shop registers a few final sales, and the last visitors straggle out, leaving that atmospheric ocean music to swell on its own. In a few minutes, it will be time to take down the flags out front.

But the volunteer divers in the kelp forest are not quite done. With bubbles streaming skyward, they tiptoe about like space-walking astronauts. One, peering out the acrylic window, raises a hand in what seems a goodbye salute. But it isn’t really.

He’s just working on the window with a non-abrasive cloth, because these things cloud up, and the sea never sleeps.