When I was little, my dad recorded Nature videos for me, including one about Monterey Bay. Having watched it a million times, I’m rather knowledgeable, and only a little obsessed.
The most unique exhibit is the kelp forest. Kelp, thirty or more feet tall and capable of growing a foot a day in optimum conditions, is notoriously hard to keep, needing a constant supply of seawater. To combat this, they designed and installed a giant pump that continuously pushes water through the exhibit.
On the way out, it also goes through the tidal exhibits, and over the big tunnel that kids love to scream in.
The shark and tuna exhibit had the largest single pane of aquarium glass in the world until it was topped by one in Japan. Then that broke, raining broken glass and sharks down on onlookers, and the one in Monterey Bay was back to being the largest. Sitting there in front of that giant portal into another world, I was struck by how large tuna can grow, unconstrained by gravity. They were much larger than the sharks, although they didn’t look as funny as the hammerheads, or even this baby leopard shark.
I was honestly less impressed with their jellyfish. Monterey Bay was the first aquarium to learn how to cultivate and display jellies, but they didn’t have the same variety as the special exhibit in Baltimore. That being said, the sea nettles were as beautifully backlit as always. The famous sea otters were the central exhibit, the first thing you see when you walk under the fiberglass orcas hanging from the ceiling. The four females, Rosa, Abby, Kit, and Gidget, frolic under the awed gaze of visitors. Their fur, thickest in the world with over a million hairs per square inch, more than humans have on our entire bodies, keeps them dry in the cold water, but without blubber, they still have to eat up to a quarter of their body weight each day to stay warm. I’d highly recommend going to watch when they’re fed, but if you want a good view, get there at least five minutes before the scheduled time.
Despite their adorability, they weren’t my favorite exhibit. Once again, a temporary show takes the cake; Tentacles, the cephalopods. In the kelp forest area, the aquarium had two giant pacific octopodes (It isn’t octopi. That’s the Latin pluralization, and the word is Greek.), who weren’t hiding in some crevice for once, were cool, but paled in comparison to the variety of this exhibit. As well as the creatures themselves, it had art featuring the charismatic molluscs, including a drawing of the infamous ship-eating Kraken, painted octopus pots dating back to the twelfth century, and, personal favorite, an octopus shaped diving helmet.As cool as that was though, as soon as I spotted the squid tank at the end of the hall, I was lost to the air-breathing world. The only real squid I’d seen before were either dissected in fifth grade, or fried and delicious. Out of its class, squid are the masters of mobility. Streamlined bodies allow great speeds through the simple act of siphoning air in and shooting it back out into the ocean. There was even a fake tank where you could pump a handle and make a model squid spin around.
Nautiluses, the only shelled cehpalopod, haven’t changed much since the days when they were called ammonites. Large eyes allow them to see in the low light of the twilight zone, where they spend the daylight hours. At night, some ascend to the upper levels of the ocean, filling the pockets in their shell with air so they bob upward, and no one really knows why. Cephalopods are a mysterious group.
Octopuses (the most common and also correct pronunciation) are revered for their brains and their escape artist abilities. Sadly, I was not witness to any of this. My disappointment was lightened by the mimic octopus, whose long limbs and chromatophores allow it to disguise itself as almost any animal. Once again though, I was not privy to the octopuses’ secrets.
The cuttlefish though were proud to show off. Especially the appropriately-named flamboyants. Rainbow zebra stripes raced down their bodies from their mantle towards their rather stubby but no less colorful arms. Their eyes only added to the alien qualities, W-shaped pupils observing us as they wait patiently for the takeover. Flashing patterns can be used for communication, as well as hiding from predators andstunning potential prey, so it isn’t unreasonable to assume that cephalopods have an ocean-spanning network of spies and soldiers waiting to swarm into our cities when they flood.The most interesting things in the world are often also some of the scariest, and these ancient, plotting, shapeshifting buglers who can grow to enormous sizes are no exception. It’s no wonder to me that sailors feared the Kraken.
Even if the cephalopods have moved on by the time you go, don’t miss the Monterey Bay Aquarium if you’re ever in the area. Tickets are expensive, but for good reason. A single sea otter eats $15,000 worth of seafood every year, and the other exhibits aren’t cheap to maintain either. Don’t miss out on anything this aquarium has to offer, from otters to touch pools to penguins and octopuses and beyond.