THE BEST AQUARIUM ON PLANET EARTH
If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in the water – Loren Eiseley
I don’t profess to be an expert on many subjects. The art of cooking pasticho, yes. Car dancing at red lights, double yes. Professional tennis watching (my professional playing career was limited to an amazing 20 seconds back in 2002 culminating in a reverse smash that I have not stopped reminding people about) – are you kidding me, this is my favourite thing to do, preferably while eating éclairs at Roland Garros. Receiving a JCrew catalogue in the mail and maintaining actual dollars in my savings account – it’s difficult, but I’ve got this people. Winning at Mario Kart on the Nintendo 64? Again yes. I play Peach, to the irritation of many, but I can and will beat anyone, aside from Beth who has a long time history of pipping me at the post.
Of all my weird loves though, one stands out. I love sea monsters and while I am no expert, what I lack in knowledge is made up for in unbridled enthusiasm. I love reading about them. Love a good sea monster documentary. Love youtubing them, not to mention google-imaging-them. Love sending emails to friends with amazing creatures of the deep sea facts, because I love those facts. Love finding articles about unknown sea creatures washed ashore. I love them for their beauty, for their mysteriousness, for all that we don’t know about them and obviously, for their amazing names (long before there was North West, there was the Vampire Squid From Hell, which is not my nickname for Kim Kardashian, but an actual real life deep sea squid).
Most of all, I love seeing them in the actual flesh, which of course, is a bit of a conundrum, considering they most often live very deep in the actual ocean.
Enter the amazing Monterey Bay Aquarium. My favourite part of our Cali road trip and the absolute best aquarium I have ever visited.
Before we meet it’s residents, let’s talk aquarium.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium consistently ranks amongst the world’s top three aquariums, welcoming over 2 million visitors each year. It’s not hard to see why.
Location wise, it sits right on Monterey Bay, with fresh ocean water circulating constantly through the exhibits, at a rate of about 7570 litres per minute. This means that from an ecological position, the aquarium actually forms part of the ocean. Aside from that being an amazing fact in its own right – the result is that species such as Giant Kelp, which are not suitable for other aquariums, actually thrive at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
During the night, raw seaweed is pumped through the exhibits, which brings in plankton. Incredibly, some of the species of seaweed in the Giant Kelp forest have actually entered through the aquarium waters, rather than having been planted.
The Open Sea
Let’s start with the largest exhibit at the aquarium, the Open Sea exhibit. I am a Sagittarius and as such, as Beth claims, prone to exaggeration (for the record I completely disagree – it’s genuine enthusiasm!), but seriously, no amount of me telling you how awesome this exhibit is would or could ever amount to exaggerating. You’ll see pacific bluefin tuna, hammerhead sharks, dolphinfish, sea turtles, jellies, and thousands upon thousands of sardines, all moving as one. If lamps are the jewellery of the interior design world then sardines are surely the jewellery of this exhibit. They are glorious. But who I am to tell you anything, when you can see for yourself?
The Giant Kelp
The 28-foot high Giant Kelp forest (which can be viewed from multiple different levels of the aquarium) is the centrepiece of the aquarium.
The top of the tank is open to the sky to maximise sunlight exposure and the Giant Kelp in the exhibit grow at a rate of 3 to 5 inches per day, with the kelp fronds growing straight up to the surface and then spreading across the top of the water to form a canopy (side note – to Beth’s eternal frustration – I always confuse canopy and canapé and I could actually do with a canapé right about now – beef and horseradish bruschetta anyone?).
Back on track and from a design perspective, the exhibit features one of the largest single glass panels on planet earth.
Now to the jellies and oh my goodness, they are worth the trip alone. Growing up on Moreton Bay, we had and still have our fair share of jellyfish encounters. I can smell a jellyfish a mile off and yes, I know how strange that sentence is. A lot of our afternoons after school were spent returning jellies into the ocean when they’d been trapped on the rocks by low tides. When Beth and I would annoy each other as kids, it usually involved one of us using the pool net to catch jellyfish and dangle them over the other, causing a slight sting and a lot of mental anguish. No jellies were harmed during our childhood exploits, with all returned to the ocean quick stat.
It’s safe to say though, that we have never before encountered the beautiful jellies of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which was actually the first aquarium on earth to exhibit jellies.
Stunning, but with a sting that hurts, their tentacles and frilly mount arms are covered with stinging cells which paralyse their prey. Click here to see the sea nettle jellies of the Monterey Bay Aquarium via their live cam (be careful it’s super hypnotic).
Instead of the long tentacles you see on the sea nettle jellies, moon jellies have a short fringe. The kangaroos of the jellie world, they store prey in pouches until their oral arms pick up the prey and begin digesting.
It’s now well accepted that climate change has increased the acidity of the ocean – harmful to so many ocean species, but jellies have thrived with the change. If you saw these moon jellies floating on the oceans surface, what would they remind you of? While jellies are not under threat, the Monterey Bay Aquarium estimates that thousands of other animals like birds and turtles die each year after swallowing plastic that they have mistaken for jellies.
The tentacles exhibit features an extensive array of octopuses, squids and cuttlefish and was really a highlight. The Giant Pacific Octopuses were definitely our favourite. They seemed very much aware of what was happening around them. One seemed quite shy while another actually seemed like it was making eye contact. There is an ever growing body of evidence suggesting that cephalopods like octopuses and squids are deeply intelligent, with highly advanced predatory techniques showing the ability to communicate and cooperate with one another, well developed learning and problem solving skills, the ability to use tools to their own advantage, to remember and even to play. Orion magazine features a wonderful article on the subject, centred on the intelligence of a beautiful Giant Pacific octopus named Athena. I read the article before visiting the aquarium and it really made me feel differently about the visit and about seeing these amazing creatures for the first time. It felt like a great honour. It’s an excellent read.
We couldn’t get a snap of the Giant Pacific Octopuses, not because you aren’t allowed, but because it was quite dark in the exhibit and it also felt so intimate that we really didn’t want to disturb them like that. We did however get a snap of a Bigfin Reef Squid…
There are those places in the world, where everyone tells you, you just have to go. Then there are those places you don’t hear much about, but they blow you away. This is one of those places. What you see here is as real as you and me and is incredible. You really need to see the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Truly. There really is magic here. If I lived in the area, I would be making a visit every few months.
To finish, we’ll leave you with these beautiful coral gardens. Look closely to find amazing creatures camouflaged within.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is entirely non-profit and aims to inspire conversation of the oceans. It has developed the acclaimed Seafood Watch Program to promote better fishing practices and help seafood lovers make more ocean friendly choices when eating seafood. If you’re a seafood lover and you want to do your part to keep the oceans healthy and abundant, you can check seafood (and sushi!) ratings here, so you know whether you’re making good choices.
You’ll find the aquarium at 886 Cannery Row in Monterey, a short drive from the lovely Old Monterey Inn. Opening hours are 10am-5pm everyday and tickets are $39.95 (US) for adults and $24.95 (US) for children. You’ll want to allow for at least half a day at the aquarium, to explore all the exhibits.