By Lee Foster
One of the great travel pleasures of Monterey, California, today is that its world-class Monterey Aquarium enhances so superbly the area’s earlier legacy of major nature attractions. The latest blockbuster exhibit at the Aquarium is called “Tentacles,” celebrating the octopus and its cousins in the sea.
The Aquarium presents the wonders of the sea, such as fish in a huge kelp forest, as a diver would experience them offshore. This wonder, so thoroughly scientific and precise, does not need enhancement with amusement park attractions.
San Diego’s SeaWorld, moving from emphasis on performing whales to its purely scientific penguin exhibit, suggests a detour that the Monterey Aquarium has happily bypassed. The Monterey Aquarium never went through an amusement-park phase, partly because it had adequate funding from the David Packard family to showcase nature itself as sufficiently fascinating.
The Monterey Aquarium also had the genius to portray initially the local California coast and nearby ocean, which happens to be one of the great ocean ecosystems on the planet. Other aquariums create a fish warehouse of unrelated exotic species from all over the world. The Monterey Aquarium began with a local emphasis and then extended its reach and vision to the larger global issues of sea-life sustainability worldwide.
The Monterey Aquarium, one of the world’s largest aquariums, is at the north end of Cannery Row in Monterey. The facility exists in the converted Hovden cannery building, 866 Cannery Row, the last cannery functioning here from the earlier era of sardine fishing. If novelist John Steinbeck were still alive, he would be a supporter of the Aquarium. His novel Cannery Row described the gritty world of the sardine fishery people. Now the traveler is the catch-of-the-day. Ironically, both the traveler and the traveler’s delight in the ocean must be sustainable for the Aquarium to survive and flourish.
Some of the ongoing exhibits are breathtaking, such as the Kelp Forest and the Open Sea. The Kelp Forest is the robust plant life environment immediately offshore, which you would experience if you donned a wetsuit and put on your snorkel or scuba mask, possibly at Point Lobos nearby. The Open Sea amounts to a huge million-gallon tank behind a thick acrylic window. The tank is large enough for immense tuna and ocean sunfish to survive, as well as schools of anchovies, which hang out on the exhibit floor.
A daily chart of feeding-and-explanation shows can alert you to exhibits where sea creatures become animated at feeding times, as the animal biologists in charge inform you about the animals’ behaviors and beauty. You can take behind-the-scenes tours and enjoy 15-minute auditorium presentations. Family adventures are a focus, engaging all ages.
Exhibits at the Monterey Aquarium will appeal to everyone, from the three-year-old thrilled to put a finger on an actual starfish in the touch tanks to adult observers delighting in the antics of sea otters, the local favorite animal. Sea otters, saved from near extinction, may be seen cracking open a clam shell with a rock. Their energetic feeding antics are purposeful, partly because they need calories to maintain their 103 degree body temperatures in sometimes 55 degree ocean water temperatures. The fine fur they developed as a thermal protection also brought them close to extinction, when the Russian fur harvesters and their skillful Aleut Alaskan kayak hunters sought to fill the European fashion demand for sea otter hats.
Break up your visit with a meal at chef Cindy Pawlcyn’s fine dining restaurant, Cindy’s Waterfront, featuring sustainable seafood. At the end of your repast, you will walk away with a Seafood Watch pocket card checklist useful at your local supermarket to guide consumer choices. The Monterey Aquarium sees itself as an advocacy organization devoted to inspiring conservation of the oceans, There is also a casual café with good and fast food, designed to keep excited children nourished and ready for their next exhibit. .
Each year there are new and interesting exhibits, such as the recent “Tentacles: The Astounding Lives of Octopuses, Squid, and Cuttlefishes.” Tentacles displays hundreds of these wondrous sea animals with multiple arms, known as cephalopods, some large and some small. Adjacent is “The Jellies Experience,” another popular stop, showing one of the largest collections of jellyfish anywhere. Jellyfish and all jellyfish are graceful, dancing drifters that pulse along, sometimes flashing colorful lights or packing a powerful sting. The signature and original exhibit at the Monterey Aquarium has always been “The Kelp Forest,” mimicking the immediate world offshore, where kelp plants can grow three feet a day, second only to bamboo among the fastest growing plants on Earth.
The Monterey Aquarium complements other nature-based adventures here, starting with the gathering of millions of monarch butterflies on the eucalyptus trees in Pacific Grove’s Washington Park. The butterflies congregate from October-March, with the annual Butterfly Parade scheduled for October. Walking to enjoy nature in Pacific Grove can include a stroll along Oceanview Boulevard, with its colorful pink iceplant decor. This walk is an excellent place to experience crashing surf, kelp beds, and sea otters. Oceanview Boulevard winds all along the waterfront of Pacific Grove. Pacific Grove’s Asilomar Beach, along the west side of the town, offers another excellent beach walk. You can inspect tide pools at low tide.
The Monterey peninsula presents a famous nature driving tour on a private road through a choice seaside landscape. This 17-Mile Drive, accessible for a nominal fee, introduces a traveler to the pleasing combination of rugged seashore and thick forest. The most famous landmark along the 17-Mile Drive is the Lone Cypress, still magnificent after rehabilitation following torching by a misguided teenager. The gnarled Monterey cypress trees, which grows naturally only here and at Point Lobos, fill a special ecological niche, clinging to cliffs, watered by fogs and salt sprays,then trimmed and twisted by coastal gales and headwinds. Besides the Lone Cypress, some appealing stops along the 17-Mile Drive are Bird Rock and Seal Rock, famous for cormorants and sea lions; the Restless Sea, where two sea currents meet and throw up sprays of white froth; Cypress Point, with its stunning views of the rugged coast; and Fanshell Beach, a small cove with a beach of bright white sand. At several locations, such as Spanish Bay, you can picnic and walk.
At any time of the year, include in your itinerary a visit to Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, a state park just south from Monterey-Carmel along Highway 1. Point Lobos’ 1,225 acres are a superb place at which to watch for sea otters, harbor seals, and sea lions or ponder the tide pools after you’ve been oriented to Monterey Bay life at the Aquarium. Point Lobos is the choicest single place in the region for nature walks. The reserve protects the native plant and animal life, the geological features, and the scenic value of the area. The beauty of Point Lobos, with its ample flora and fauna, entices with many rewards for the walker, who can wander over its 15 miles of trails. You could spend a lifetime meditating over the natural world of Point Lobos. The blue blossom ceanothus, a typical California shrub, and the Douglas iris, one of the delicate California spring wildflowers, show lavishly here.
Ocean kayaking is a pleasing way to explore nature in the area. You will see kayakers out in the kelp beds near the Aquarium, perhaps watching the behavior of the sea otters. One experienced provider for guided trips is Monterey Bay Kayaks, 693 Del Monte Avenue, good for tours here and slightly north in Elkhorn Slough, an estuary where you are likely to see an abundance of sea otters.
One lodging especially appropriate for this write-up is the Monterey Beach Resort on the north edge of Monterey Bay. It is the only lodging in that area right on the beach. You can step out of your room and walk for miles in solitude north and south along the ocean’s edge. A paved walking, running, and biking path stretches from this resort all the way in to the Monterey Aquarium, plus north to the sand dunes of Ford Ord, a former military facility now transformed into public park use. The paved path extends beyond the Monterey Aquarium all the way around the peninsula and Pacific Grove.
The Monterey Aquarium: If You Go
For more on the Monterey Aquarium, 866 Cannery Row, see http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/. There’s plenty of parking in garages on Foam Street, one block up the hill from the Aquarium.
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve information is at http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=571.
The Monarch Butterfly phenomenon in Pacific Grove is described at http://www.pacificgrove.org/things-to-do/top-attractions/monarch-butterflies/3.