Monterey Bay and Its Astonishing New Aquarium; It's a Good Time to Explore Both

Sunset, November 1984 | Go to article overview

Monterey Bay and Its Astonishing New Aquarium; It's a Good Time to Explore Both


Why would a group of marine biologists spend seven years and $40 million to build the nation's largest aquarium in Monterey? The answer begins at the bottom of Monterey Bay. Just beyond the rushing waves and drifting fronds of kelp is the head of a submarine canyon deeper than Yosemite Valley, deeper even than the Grand Canyon.

This abyss, called Monterey Canyon (see the fold-out map starting on page 96), fuels one of the West Coast's most diverse ocean environments, teeming with marine life ranging from the common to the bizarre.

The canyon brings great whales and fish-hunting marine birds close to shore, along with strange deep-sea fish. The great depths also lead swirling silver clouds of anchovies into the bay, bringing hungry pelicans and cormorants diving from the sky. Nutrient-rich waters generate food for all bay residents--from microscopic plankton to playful sea otters. Unseen and virtually unknown, the canyon influences everything from the local economy to the weather.

Perched on the edge of the bay in Monterey, the dramatic new aquarium offers visitors a fish-eye look at this amazing ecosystem and its aquatic inhabitants. Scheduled to open October 20, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is housed in a rambling complex at the north end of Cannery Row. It can be the focus of a day, weekend, or longer visit to the Monterey Peninsula.

After you glimpse the bay's underwater world at the aquarium, you can plan your own waterside look at bird and marine mammal life from a score of parks ringing the bay.

Autumn, with its brisk, usually clear weather, is one of the best times to visit. November marks the peak of the fall bird migration and the start of the four-month prime viewing season for marine mammals. A number of whale-watching boat tours and local nature programs get you around and onto the bay. We ofter guidance on the following pages. Much more than a fish "warehouse"

The new Monterey Bay Aquarium is more than just a collection of fish tanks: it is a celebration of the diversity of the entire bay area. "We tried to design the aquarium as an educational facility, to explain all the elements that contribute to this dynamic ecosystem," explains director Julie Packard. "That's why we limited our focus to Monterey Bay. To understand it completely, you need to look at its geology, its oceanography, its biology, and certainly at how man has affected it."

While this may sound ominously technical, acquarium display designers have steered away from the tired box-in-the-wall approach, opting instead for lively exhibits in dramatically shaped tanks that entice you to peer in. Many displays are interactive, inviting a closer look at aquatic occupants. You can get your hands wet at a number of tanks: at one, the fish are fed; at another, you are.

Where display guile won't do, unabashed drama does. Complex habitats are displayed in tanks bigger than most swimming pools; your guides are divers who give in-water introductions of fish and invertebrates alike.

The drama starts as you enter the lobby. Swimming above you are life-size models of whales, dolphins, and porpoises. They lead you to the marine mammal wing and what promises to be one of the most popular exhibits: the sea otter habitat. Open to the sun, this 55,000-gallon tank allows you to watch otters both above and below water.

Fabricated rocks have already proven popular with residents--young pups who were orphaned and found washed up on beaches. Otters eat up to 20 percent of their weight each day, so feeding times will be frequent. This habitat is the first step in what curators hope will become a rescue center for sick or injured marine birds and otters.

Backtrack to the lobby and stop in the small theater for an 8-minute slide show about the aquarium and the bay. It's a good introduction for what comes next.

Walking under a replica of a small felucca, the wooden boat used here by Italian fishermen at the turn of the century, you enter a dim corridor filled with shimmering blue light from the kelp forest tank, pictured on the cover. …

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