Monterey Bay Aquarium fascinates both kids and parents with the sea's bounty

August 14, 1994|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

The furry sea otters turned somersaults, wrestled and played, oblivious to the mostly pint-sized crowd mesmerized by the performance.

The kids, their noses pressed up to the glass of the huge 55,000-gallon, two-story otter tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, moved on reluctantly. "They're just so cute and funny," said 8-year-old Reggie to her friend Molly Mermelstein, who lives not far away in Palo Alto and never tires of visiting here.

That's because there's so much for parents and kids alike to do and see at this extraordinary place in Monterey, Calif. More than 6,000 creatures -- silver anchovies furiously swimming in circles, luminous moon jellies drifting idly, starfish and octopuses, fierce sharks and delicate sea horses -- vie for our attention as we make our way through the largest national marine sanctuary.

The aquarium, with its 100-plus galleries and exhibits packed with thousands of specimens of plants, birds and reptiles found in Monterey Bay, is now celebrating its 10th anniversary. Monterey, with its aquarium, beautiful beaches and historic Fisherman's Wharf and Cannery Row -- center of the once-thriving sardine industry and immortalized by John Steinbeck -- is an ideal stop for a family along the much-traveled coastal route between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

(For information about the Monterey Peninsula, call the Monterey Peninsula Chamber of Commerce Info Center at [408] 649-1770. Call the aquarium at [408] 648-8488, [800] 756-3737 in California.)

The aquarium is one of the most popular in the nation, with 1.7 million visitors a year. For out-of-towners like us, a visit offers a wonderful chance to appreciate and understand the aquatic life that thrives along the Northern California coast.

Take the Kelp Forest, a towering three-story exhibit offering a diver's view of California's giant kelp. Sardines, sharks and many other fish weave among the kelp (the kids couldn't believe it grows as much as 8 inches a day out in the bay). At 28 feet, the Kelp Forest is the tallest aquarium exhibit in the world.

Even a child uninterested in the sea can't help but get involved here. Young children are fascinated simply watching the brilliantly colored fish. So am I. They have to pull me away from the tank of anchovies.

Older kids are intrigued by the technology scientists use to study these creatures. The bay is the site of the vast underwater Monterey Canyon, which plunges two miles below the surface. Aquarium scientists use an unmanned submarine to explore this aquatic wonderland, and we watched videos of the strange world 3,000 feet below the surface. This summer, via radio hook-up, the scientists are available to answer questions.

We stop at the bat ray petting pool to visit these weird-looking creatures. Don't be afraid to touch -- their stingers have been removed.

At "Discovery Stations" on the aquarium decks, youngsters can examine shark teeth, search the shoreline through a telescope or dress up as scuba divers to understand the lengths humans must go to in order to survive in the sea.

It's not surprising that there is such an emphasis on learning here. The nonprofit aquarium was conceived by four Stanford University marine biologists. It is recognized around the world for innovative exhibits and its commitment to research and education.

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