A Visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium

By Karen Gough
Karen Gough
Karen Gough
Karen Gough is a writer and travel enthusiast. She shares her family’s travel tales at TheFootlooseScribbler.com
April 8, 2022 Updated: April 8, 2022

What’s Special About Monterey Bay?

On the central coast of California lies a rich marine sanctuary—Monterey Bay. The bay is part of a network of National Marine Sanctuaries, and provides habitat for over 34 species of marine mammals, 180 species of birds, and 525 different types of fish. Within the bay lies a submarine canyon that extends from a depth of 60 to 10,633 feet—that’s over two miles deep and twice the depth of the Grand Canyon.

NOAA map
A map showing the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and submarine canyon. (courtesy of NOAA, https://montereybay.noaa.gov/materials/maps.html)

Two different bodies of water meet within the bay: cooler water from Alaska and warmer water from Mexico. These nutrient-rich waters attract animals who travel thousands of miles each year to feed and shelter within the moderate tides and temperatures of the bay. Everything from plankton to blue whales frequent these waters. And the jewel within this sanctuary? I would say it is the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

What’s Special About the Monterey Bay Aquarium?

The Monterey Bay Aquarium, located on the ocean shore at 886 Cannery Row, Monterey, Calif., is a beautifully designed public facility showcasing 10 separate habitats, 200 exhibits, and over 700 different types of animals. Closed for 13 months due to Covid shutdowns, they reopened last May, and as of Mar. 21, 2022, dropped their vaccine and mask mandates. Able to breath freely, I returned last week and thoroughly enjoyed my visit.

Monterey Bay Aquarium
A quick line forms for the Monterey Bay Aquarium. (courtesy of Karen Gough)

Favorite Exhibits

Everyone has a favorite exhibit within the aquarium, whether it’s the playful sea otters, the giant kelp forest, or the jellies—it varies from person to person. One of my favorites is the Monterey Bay Habitats exhibit. Among other creatures, the 90-foot-long tank houses sharks, rays, fish, crabs, and anemones. To give the sharks room to turn and glide (they must keep moving), the tank is shaped like an hourglass. A giant sea bass hangs out near the glass, seemingly curious about the people looking in. The sandy floor and waving seaweed house an abundance of creatures that mesmerize viewers. I could stay there all day.

bat ray
A bat ray glides up the glass wall. (courtesy of Karen Gough)
giant sea bass
A hand appears to touch the giant sea bass through a concave window. (courtesy of Karen Gough)

Another amazing exhibit is the Giant Kelp Forest. This tank is 28 feet tall and holds 343,000 gallons of water. Pumps draw up to 2,000 gallons of sea water into the tank every minute. Pipes then disperse the sea water into other exhibits within the aquarium. A surge machine mimics the constant movement of the ocean. When the aquarium is fully staffed (they are still rebuilding their pool of volunteers), visitors can watch a scuba diver enter the tank to feed the fish. This is a wonderful show as the diver is able to speak into an underwater microphone and answer audience questions via the docent stationed outside the tank. Since all visitors must remain seated during this time, the tank remains clearly visible from top to bottom. Hopefully, the aquarium will soon return to a fixed schedule of public-viewing times for daily feedings.

kelp forest
The Giant Kelp Forest exhibit. (courtesy of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation)
school of fish
Fish school within the kelp forest exhibit. (courtesy of Karen Gough)

Knowledgeable Staff and Volunteers

The Monterey Bay Aquarium would be nothing without its volunteers. They work behind the scenes taking care of tanks and animals, help with research, and engage with visitors on the floors. I spoke with three past and present volunteers. One gentleman has been volunteering there for 15 years. Another woman volunteered for five years until she had to move away. She came back to visit and share the wonders of the aquarium with her children. In other words, the volunteers are enthusiastic. They are also knowledgeable. There is usually one or more stationed at each exhibit. I recommend talking with them; you will learn a lot. For instance, in the Open Sea exhibit, I learned a few things about jellies.

fish tank
The main tank of the Open Sea exhibit holds 1.2 million gallons of sea water. (courtesy of Karen Gough)
moon jellies
An alien world of moon jellies. (courtesy of Kate Gough)

What About Jellies?

Jellies first arrived in the Monterey aquarium as a temporary exhibit back in 1992. They proved to be so popular with the public that the exhibit became permanent and another facet was added in 2002. Walking into the Jellies exhibit is like entering an alien world. Electroacoustic music plays in the background, while jellies—both colorful and transparent—drift hypnotically within their tanks.

A volunteer told me that the tanks are actually round (this is not apparent), because otherwise the jellies—who drift at the mercy of winds and currents—would get stuck in the corners. He also told me that in the wild, they take part in something called vertical migration.

A purple-striped jelly undulates through the water. (courtesy of Karen Gough)

What Is Vertical Migration?

Vertical migration (diurnal vertical migration) takes place every day in all the oceans and seas around the world. At dusk, billions of deep-sea creatures rise up from the ocean floor to feed at the surface. At dawn they return to hide at the bottom of the sea. It is the largest mass migration in the world. Among others, the migrating animals include plankton, crustaceans, squid, and fish. Some of these creatures will be on display in the aquarium’s new exhibit, called the Deep Sea.

A child stares in wonder at the bigfin reef squid. (courtesy of Karen Gough)

The Deep Sea Exhibit

The Monterey Bay Aquarium will open their latest exhibit called Into the Deep: Exploring Our Undiscovered Ocean on Apr. 9, 2022. The 10,000-square-foot exhibit will display creatures never before seen in public, some of them so new to scientists they have yet to be named. The exhibit was developed through a partnership between the aquarium and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) located in Moss Landing, Calif. Many of the animals in the exhibit were collected by robotic submarines. A sophisticated life-support system mimics the deep-water environment of the animals’ home. While the immense pressure of the deep-sea could obviously not be replicated, the system does allow staff and scientists to adjust water temperatures, pH, and oxygen to appropriate levels. This should be a fascinating exhibit.

deep sea
Example of a deep-sea species. (courtesy of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation)

Children Love the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Hands-on, interactive exhibits are in plentiful supply at the aquarium. Children can enjoy mimicking the flight of a seagull, visiting the touch pool, and playing in the fantastic Coral Reef Kingdom. When our children were young, the Coral Reef Kingdom served as a welcome time-out for our kids and a chance to rest for us parents. Children also enjoy getting outside to the ocean-view deck, and of course getting right up to the tanks and touching the glass.

Children “fly” in the Soaring With Seabirds play area. (courtesy of Karen Gough)
bat ray
A child pets a baby bat ray. (courtesy of Karen Gough)
Seating area on the ocean-view deck. (courtesy of Karen Gough)

If You Go:

  • The aquarium no longer requires proof of vaccination and masks are optional.
  • The Monterey Bay Aquarium is open every day except Christmas, from 10am to 5pm.
  • Online reservations are required, unless you have a membership. They do not sell tickets in-person.
  • Tickets range from $34.95/child to $49.95/adult.
  • Food and drinks are not allowed within the aquarium.
  • A café serving healthy, delicious, and expensive food is on site. Otherwise, there are many restaurants on Cannery Row.
  • There is no onsite parking but there are three parking lots on Cannery Row. There is also a passenger pickup and drop-off zone in front of the aquarium.
  • Most exhibits are wheelchair accessible and wheelchairs are available free of charge on a first-come, first-served basis.

For more information, please visit their website.

ocean view
A partial view of the aquarium from the ocean-view deck. (courtesy of Karen Gough)
Karen Gough
Karen Gough is a writer and travel enthusiast. She shares her family’s travel tales at TheFootlooseScribbler.com