Up The Road: Monterey Bay Aquarium

Dec 14, 2017

This week we visit Monterey’s Cannery Row and the world-class Monterey Bay Aquarium, which was among the first to recognize that by focusing on the local and very specific—in this case, the amazing sea life just offshore—aquariums could inspire people to appreciate oceans in general. Pretty darn smart. As Bill Nye the Science Guy says, this is the “coolest aquarium in the world.”

A juvenile king angelfish, one of the unique creatures that will be star in the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s upcoming Baja exhibit.
Credit Photo by Marli Wakeling/SeaPics.com

In his novel by the same name, local boy John Steinbeck described Monterey's Cannery Row as “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tune, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” It was also a corrugated collection of sardine canneries, restaurants, honky-tonks, whorehouses, and waterfront laboratories. The street, he said, groaned under the weight of “silver rivers of fish.” People here liked his description so much that they eventually put it on a plaque and planted it in today's touristy Cannery Row, among the few Steinbeck-era buildings still standing.

Before the aquarium opened, the neighborhood had been in decline for quite some time—doomed by the disappearance of sardines here and elsewhere along the coast due to overfishing during the 1950s, one of most spectacular fishery collapses in U.S. history. Suggesting that we still haven’t quite learned this lesson, Pacific sardine populations are crashing again, primarily due to overfishing—again—which means not only that fishing fleets are coming home empty but that sea lion pups and brown pelican chicks are starving, the result of major disruption to the entire food chain.

So how perfect that the Monterey Bay Aquarium set up shop in an abandoned sardine cannery, given its research commitments and public education mission—always encouraging people to interact with, and thereby better understand, nature. Those things matter if we are ever to turn the tide. The aquarium’s Seafood Watch program even helps us make wise personal choices about the fish and seafood we eat, based on conservation principles, something to appreciate before tucking in at the onsite café.

Kelp Forest, Monterey Bay Aquarium
Credit Monterey Bay Aquarium

From a multilevel view of kelp forests in perpetual motion to face-to-face encounters with sharks and wolf eels, from petting velvety bat rays and starfish in “touch pools” to watching sea otters feed and frolic, here people can observe the native marine plants and wildlife of Monterey Bay up close and personal. Not to mention impressive special exhibits, guest appearances by ocean creatures from elsewhere.

The brainchild of marine biologist Nancy Packard and her sister, aquarium director Julie Packard, the Monterey Bay Aquarium got a big boost from Hewlett-Packard computer magnate David Packard and his wife, Lucile, who donated $55 million to their daughters’ cause. Packard also personally designed many of the unique technological features of major exhibits here.

Giant Pacific octopus on exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Credit Monterey Bay Aquarium

The engineering feats shoring up these amazingly “natural” exhibits are impressive. Most remarkable are the aquatic displays, concrete tanks with unbreakable one-ton acrylic windows more than seven inches thick. The exhibits’ “wave action” is simulated by a computer-controlled surge machine and hidden water jets. In the Nearshore Galleries, more than a half-million gallons of fresh seawater are pumped through the various aquarium tanks daily to keep these habitats healthy. During the day, six huge “organic” water filters screen out microorganisms that would otherwise cloud the water. At night, filtration shuts down and raw, unfiltered seawater flows through the exhibits—nourishing filter-feeders and also carrying in plant spores and animal larvae that settle and grow, just as they would in nature. In the event of an oil spill or other oceanic disaster, the aquarium’s 16-inch intake pipes can be shut down on a moment’s notice and the aquarium can operate as a “closed system” for up to two weeks.

But maybe we’ll be able to avoid that and other ocean disasters. Maybe one day the aquarium’s work fighting for healthy oceans will be done.