Growing up in a dry, landlocked country, I was spellbound with Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. For months, I was Professor Aronnax, exploring the undersea wonders with Captain Nemo and his submarine, Nautilus.
Many of the book’s most memorable discoveries were figments of Verne’s imagination. At the Monterey Bay Aquarium, I was startled to find the real-world companions to the scenes I’d imagined back then: the Kelp Forest, its tendrils rising up two stories high and swaying gently around the gleaming, sinuous bodies of leopard sharks (a pump pushes 2,000 gallons of sea water a minute through the forest, so kelp can live); blooms of jellyfish, some completely transparent, others vibrant, full of pulsating color (this exhibit tells the haunting tale of environmental woe, one I saw unravel on a smaller scale at the Baltimore National Aquarium); the colorful coral realm, guardian of, sadly, now closed exhibit on The Secret Lives of Seahorses; and the arresting visions of the Open Sea, home to glittering schools of Pacific sardines, each individual like a tiny, shining forest sprite, swirling around the unhurried giant forms of ocean sunfish, green sea turtles, blue fin tuna, and hammerhead sharks.
We got so wrapped up in all this spectacle that few pictures came out in the end. Here are some that did, birds, naturally, taking pride of place (the Aquarium, after all, is one of the main shorebird rehabilitation centers in northern California).
The Jellies Experience:
As we explored the Aquarium, we loved the feeling of being at the ocean’s edge. The building occupies the site of an old cannery, part of the historic Cannery Row, Monterey’s fish-packing district, frozen in time by John Steinbeck. The area has been scrubbed and gentrified since, but shadows of the old industrial complex still peek through. Every day at noon, sounds of the cannery’s original steam whistle remind the Aquarium visitors of this past. A chorus of such whistles once summoned workers to their posts as the catch of the day arrived–sardines especially, hence the breathtaking schools of sardines at the Aquarium’s exhibits.
The view of the Bay is another reminder, no longer as industrial as it was, now recovering. We spent some time wandering along the Aquarium’s ocean-view decks, equipped with binoculars so you can spot the Bay’s wild patrons: sea otters, dolphins, whales, and pelicans.
That grey afternoon, only sea otters came out to play. They floated among kelp, its messy green specks so difficult to reconcile with the imposing, fluid tendrils we just saw below surface.
Our visit was too brief, squeezed in between meetings. Next time, I’d like to see some of the feedings happening at various exhibits throughout the day–these bring out the more timid of the undersea denizens (like the wolf-eel of the Kelp Forest). Meanwhile, I catch myself looking in on the Aquarium’s live web cams (all six of them! Kelp forest gardening? A shark feeding tutorial? Bloodybelly comb jelly “in flight“? Yes, please!).
This was by no means an “off-the-beaten-path” visit, but sometimes it’s worth it to follow the crowds.