If you are an underwater aficionado, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is an absolute must-visit. Of course, casual visitors will have a great time, but aquaphiles will absolutely fall in love. It’s the kind of attraction that people plan vacations around. I would know, because we recently did exactly that.
Located in the small coastal California city of Monterey, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is arguably the premier aquarium on America’s west coast. The drive up from San Diego is around a 6-hour trip, and if I recall correctly, the drive south from San Francisco is around a 2-hour venture. (Please correct me if I’m wrong.) This was my third time at the aquarium, having previously been as a boy and a teenager, roughly.
The central California coastline is known for its rocky shores and extensive kelp beds. The MBA is built along a stretch of this shoreline, creating panoramic ocean views and also allowing the aquarium to utilize the bay to cycle sea water into certain tanks. The result is a number of large, ambitious tanks that only few other aquariums in the world can pull off.
The most visually arresting of these is the 28-foot tall Kelp Forest, designed in part to showcase the regional ocean ecosystem. The tank is in constant motion, from the stalks of giant kelp swaying in the simulated tide to the constant mulling of sea bass, sardines, leopard sharks, rockfish, rays, wolf eels and more. It is so large that there are viewing areas spread over two stories.
Surrounding the Kelp Forest are the Monterey Bay Habitats dedicated to more local wildlife. Animals on display include giant octopi, halibut, sand dollars, spiny lobster, pier barnacles and ancient sevengill sharks.
The other marquee attraction is the newly renovated Open Sea galleries, primarily the 1.2 million gallon open ocean tank. The massive tank, which features an auditorium-style viewing area, houses several species rarely seen on display due to their demanding needs. These species include hammerhead sharks, green sea turtles and bluefin tuna, which accompany more common California barracuda, rays, Pacific sunfish and schools of mackerel.
The open ocean tank is so large it has successfully displayed juvenile great white sharks on four different occasions—becoming the first aquarium in the world to do so. Smaller tanks in the Open Sea galleries contain various jellyfish, puffins and juvenile sea turtles.
Apart from the large and impressive display tanks, the MBA also includes several family-friendly hands-on and informational exhibits. The best of these in my opinion are two adjacent areas called Sandy Shores and Rocky Shores. Once again focusing on local wildlife, Rocky Shores includes tidal touch pools and a very cool feature called the Wave Crash, which allows visitors to experience powerful waves as they pound down on the glass overhead. Sandy Shores is home to the popular Bat Ray Touch Pool and the walk-through shore bird aviary.
Finally, the back deck offers beautiful views of Monterey Bay and shoreline. Aquarium divers host daily educational shows in the Great Tide Pool Amphitheater, a built-in tide pool that is cycled naturally by the bay. Observation decks with free telescopes allow eagle-eyed guests to spot wild otters, harbor seals and sea lions in the rocks and kelp beds below.
There is so much to see at the aquarium that it’s impossible to mention it all in detail. Sirs Not Appearing In This Post are sea otters, seahorses, flamingos and penguins. There are tropical fish to be found in the Coral Reef Kingdom. The Splash Zone is a large children’s play area. The Marine Mammal Gallery is the place to see dolphins and whales—albeit on film.
As far as planning goes, the non-summer months are going to be much less crowded, but given the greyness of the grey coastal climate, visiting outside of the late spring or summer means your trip will probably be wet, cold and even more grey. If you really want to take in the giant aquarium in peace and at a gentle pace, you might do well to consider an off-season visit. A crowded outdoor zoo visit is one thing, but a crowded aquarium visit is considerably less pleasant. A mass of people in a dark, indoor space cramming together to see a 4-foot wide tank can be suffocating.
Also, we didn’t eat at the on-site café and restaurant but you may want to consider it. Its Yelp reviews are decent and the surrounding restaurants in Cannery Row are pricey tourist traps. Just something to think about.