Under the deep blue sea

If you want to see otters, penguins, octopi, jellyfish and sharks up close, the place to do so is at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.

But it’s more than just an assemblage of sea life. The Aquarium’s mission is “to inspire conservation of the oceans,” so a big part of what it does is to encourage understanding and involvement.

On a recent visit with my husband Gregory, I was intrigued to see the variety of ways in which the Monterey Bay Aquarium engaged its visitors. Everywhere we looked, we were actively invited to participate in some sort of learning experience. And, although there was an educational section especially for kids on the second floor, the experiences weren’t only for children. (I appreciated that they recognized adults wanted to learn new things too.)

Here are five ways the Monterey Bay Aquarium excelled at involving its visitors.

1. It let us know when things were happening.

  • After buying our tickets, we were given a flyer called “Today at the Aquarium,” which included a map of the building and times for programs, feedings, and tours. It also pointed out special things to see and do.
  • We were encouraged to sign up for text alerts to find out about unscheduled feedings, presentations, or sightings. Later, on the observation deck, we saw a grey whale spouting in the bay, and a staff person stationed there immediately called it in as a text for people to come and see.
  • Gregory also signed up for the Aquarium’s mobile app. A few days later, he was delighted to receive live footage of an otter and its baby swimming in the outside tide pool.

2. It used staff and volunteers to interact with us.

  • When we stepped into the lobby area, a staff member showed us a tube of moon jellies, whetting our appetite for the larger jellyfish exhibit inside.
  • Near the sea otter tank, a volunteer waved us over to a table displaying the skull of an otter. Later, in the jellies exhibit, another volunteer explained how jellyfish grew. 
  • The usual information placards were mounted beside the sea life exhibits, but volunteer docents mingled with the visitors answering questions and pointing out unusual traits or details.
  • We later found out that the Monterey Bay Aquarium had over 1,200 volunteers.

3. It offered opportunities to touch.

  • Gregory was very enthusiastic about the touch pools, where he was able to handle some of the sea life seen in the tanks – from the spikiness of sea urchins to the sliminess of kelp. 
  • Across from the otter exhibit, we compared the softness of otter fur to the roughness of a muskrat pelt. We no longer wondered why otters were hunted for their fur! 
  • There were also many places to press buttons to make things happen, such as seeing how fast an anemone could disappear to turning off the lights in a jellyfish tank to see how jellies luminesce.
  • Close to feeding times, space was at a premium around the tanks as people gathered to see staff feed the otters, penguins and fish. But if visitors wanted to help with the feeding, there were two “Feed the Fish” tours where they could do so.

4. It created environments to experience things vicariously.

  • To feel what it would be like to experience crashing waves, water was blasted over a glass ceiling, imitating the action of surf – and all without getting wet!
  • I was disoriented (in a good way) when I bent through rounded windows in one of the sea life exhibits, giving me the feeling that I was in the tank itself.
  • We loved the outside observation deck where telescopes and binoculars were available to view Monterey Bay. Staff kept a daily tally of sightings of birds, animals, and fish. (As mentioned previously, we saw a grey whale, as well as otters playing in the kelp and countless seabirds.)
  • To find out what it was like to work at the Aquarium, we took a “Behind-The-Scenes” tour. We saw the kitchens where the food for the animals was prepared, the room where the divers got suited up, and the surgical rooms where veterinarians cared for sick animals.

5. It communicated information in different formats.

  • We took a chair at a diner display where a chef, waitress and bus boy (on screen behind the counter) talked about how fish served in restaurants were bred and caught. In front of each chair was a monitor which allowed us to choose which seafood they would talk about. It was a very unique way of teaching sustainability of the oceans and promoting the Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program.
  • A film called Luna: A Sea Otter’s Story was shown in the auditorium, but it was narrated by a live person who invited interaction during the film. Before the showing, a Q&A on screen kept things interesting as we waited for the film to begin.
  • Life-size replicas of fish and mammals hung from the ceilings, encouraging us to consider how big some of them were. The immense size of the grey whale was of special interest to us since we had just seen a real one out in the bay.
  • Poetry and quotes from famous authors graced the walls, giving us impressions of the seas and oceans from other points of view.

I know there were many more ways in which the Aquarium engaged its visitors which we didn’t see on that occasion – a quick look on its website showed audio tours, webcams and member activities – but we spent almost the entire day there from 10am to 4pm, and we were never bored. Maybe that’s why the Aquarium ticket was good for two days in a row!

Visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium online!