If you live anywhere near the Bay Area, chances are that you’ve visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium. If you live anywhere in California, it’s probably on your list of places to visit or a highlight of a past tour of Northern California. Speaking with a former college roommate of mine, a native of Monterey, she claimed, “Besides the Aquarium and the otters, there’s nothing exciting there. I can’t tell you how much I hate Steinbeck.”
I have a personal bias, myself. It’s one of my favorite places to visit with my father when he returns from his nomadic wanderings. We have a routine path and script. We’ll start at the Kelp Forest tank where my father will point out, “I’ve swam with him,” at various sea creatures swimming behind the glass. Being a well-seasoned diver, I have no doubt he has. We’ll wind our way through the aquarium with my dad cooing over the bat rays in the touch pools or making fish-faces at me, cheeks sucked in, eyes bugged out, hands out flat by the sides of his face moving to imitate gills. The aquarium is a nostalgic place, I’m biased.
But I was able to bring a fresh set off eyes with me recently as I toured my English friend around Northern California. JC (not his real name) and I had just driven from Yosemite the day before where it had been snowing and the partly cloudy, windy forecast typical for Monterey was “down right balmy”, according to him.
As we step up to purchase our tickets, he asks, “Is this going to ruin every aquarium I visit from now on?”
“Most likely,” I answer truthfully.
We start with the kelp forest. He takes a picture of the tall, concave glass and we move on. JC is not one for dawdling. He does not read every informative plaque to learn every miniscule detail. There were also a gaggle of shrieking toddlers nearby, so I could understand his trepidation on lingering there.
We go upstairs to the touch pools. A volunteer with a Jamaican accent labels every living creature in the shallow water. JC and he continue talking while I stroke a Decorator Crab, a mix of seaweed, bits of sea sponge, and other organic matter adorning its shell. The volunteer is so enthusiastic, its amusing. He insinuates that JC and I are a couple, we both laugh in order to avoid any awkwardness and politely (but hastily) retreat.
Next is the penguins. JC coos over them as a trainer inside trades out the toys in their exhibit. One of the interactive displays about penguin communication is broken but JC just shrugs over it. You can definitely smell the penguins here.
Or perhaps it’s the children’s area next to the penguin exhibit. We pass through as I think back to when I was a small kid running through here. I see a crawl tunnel where there’s a display of clown fish inside. I miss ducking in there as a kid, which I mention to JC.
“You can probably still fit,” he quips. I’m only 5’3. He could be right. But I don’t attempt it.
“Do you want to see the otters?” I deflect.
His face lights up, “Do I!”
I shepherd him downstairs and across the lobby to the other large exhibit display: two whole stories of otter watching. They have a devoted fan club. We head to the second landing for a better look. I can’t see much through the crowd but JC is rewarded with a view due to his 6’0 stature. We back off as the crowd moves closer to the glass. It’s ten minutes until feeding time. I ask if he wants to stay.
“No, it will only get worse from here, I’ll bet.”
He’s right. We head towards the Jellyfish exhibit but become distracted by a display for the aquarium’s Seafood Watch. Videos cycle through several screens on the wall about ongoing conservation and marine biology projects run by the aquarium. Slots in the wall are filled with their folded consumer guides, separate slots are labeled by different U.S. regions. I see “Midwest”, “Northeast”, “Southeast”, and so on, there’s even a guide devoted solely for Hawaii. JC and I scan the rows for one labeled “English” or perhaps “Northern European”.
There isn’t one. We ask an Aquarium volunteer standing by the display.
“Oh, sorry,” she says. “We only have American guides right now.” I see JC’s shoulders sag in disappointment out of the corner of my eye. “But we’re working with our European partners to make an International Atlantic one.” Later, I find that an English group, the Marine Conservation Society, that is partnered with the Aquarium has their own “Good Fish Guide.”
I take a West Coast guide for myself. JC grumbles by my side.
He quickly forgets his disappointment once we enter the Jellyfish exhibit. I’ve always enjoyed the darkness in the exhibit that allows the jellyfish to take the spotlight. The reflected blue light from their tanks lends a meditative feel to the room. Their calm, repetitive pulsing movements paired with the soft Douglas Morton music arrangement played on a continuous loop makes me want to pull up an armchair to watch them all. However, JC, despite his apparent awe of the jellies and his photo-taking, doesn’t slow his pace on their account. Knowing I had only few moments, I go ahead further into the exhibit—JC is left by the Sea Nettles—to see their newest addition: the spotted comb jelly.
Mostly translucent, the jelly is almost rugby ball-shaped with several vertical rows of cilia, called “combs” for which they are named, and sporting a set of connected tentacles that resembles a bridal veil or a soggy tissue. The cilia would be unperceptively moving were it not for the rainbow shimmer effect as the cilia reflect the light. I try to capture a photo, which is only mildly successful. The still doesn’t capture the rainbow effect but it appears when I play the “Live capture” shot that presents it as a 4 second GIF.
JC catches up and we proceed to the Open Sea exhibit, where we take seats in the upper gallery and enjoy the view of these large sea creatures like tuna and pelagic swim about on display. The interactive screen downstairs wasn’t as interactive as we hoped since the touch screen seemed to be broken with the page open on the Sunfish stats.
“I wish they still had a great white,” I muse.
“It’d probably eat everything else in the tank,” JC notes.
“With any luck, it’d eat that thing,” I say, pointing at the sunfish that’s skirting the curved wall of the enormous tank.
“Why do you sound like that fish personally murdered your family?”
I enlighten him. The sunfish, or Mola Mola, is a fish found around the world’s oceans (mouth gaping, movable eyes bulging) that can grow up to 10 feet in diameter. The Monterey Bay Aquarium only allows their resident Mola Molas to grow up to 6.5 feet in diameter before tagging them and releasing them back to the Ocean. A fish that big ought to be on a lot of animals’ menus, right? No. Because the adult Mola Mola consumes jellyfish which are nutrient-poor, making the fish a slow swimmer and about a fulfilling of a meal as a rye cracker. Creatures take a bite of this fish and then leave it alone because it is so dense and unappealing that they find it not worth eating. This is, essentially, how it has survived: by being so useless nothing wants to eat it. It has circumvented evolution because of this.
“I cannot respect a fish like that,” I conclude to JC. “It’s just—look! Look at it! It’s trying to swim into the wall! Useless sea cracker!”
We move onto better animals with the “Tentacles!” exhibit. The nocturnal cephalopods are sleeping but the exhibit is interactive—with actual functioning pieces—and colorful so it’s not a huge loss. In a blur, I follow JC as we go through “¡Viva Baja!”, “Vanishing Wildlife”, “Mission to the Deep”, the aviary, before we finally seem to slow down at the Bat Ray touch pool.
Backpack tossed to the ground, jacket off, JC reaches into the water, “I’ve never touched a ray.” The excitement and anticipation shines on his face and rings through his words. This, besides the jellies, seems to be the highlight of his visit.
One swims by the edge, allowing JC to stroke its dorsal fin, and he shrieks with a quick recoil of his hand. The ray swims away from the wall in quick retreat.
“It’s slimy!” This doesn’t deter him, however; he just moves to another side of the touch pool. His fingers touch the surface of the water and two rays make their way over in a few moments, one even breaching the water with its nose. This one presses against the wall, slapping its fins against it in a similar way that a dog may wag its tail. JC strokes both their backs. A gaggle of children head over to pet these sociable rays themselves.
While I had never sped through the aquarium at such a pace—we finished it all in two hours—it still had its enchanting moments. Some displays or levers weren’t working but I suppose that’s what happens when you cater to children of all ages. But the staff, both employees and volunteers, were knowledgeable and informative. I’m sure the presentations or feedings would also have been entertaining but we didn’t have time to stop for either of those things. I didn’t get to eat at the café or restaurant, so I can’t review the food. If I had to give it a grade, I’d say this aquarium visit was a B+. This is mostly on us. We were pressed for time, we had to beat the 680 Northbound traffic returning to the East Bay(which we didn’t, in the end).
But the conclusion of our visit at the Bat Ray touch pool was worthwhile. As I guarded JC’s things, a ray approached. I reached into the water as it swam along the wall of the touch pool, the tips of my fingers brushing a dorsal fin. I recoiled at the touch.
Its skin had been smooth, graceful as it undulated under my touch.
But, man, was it slimy.