Located directly on the Monterey Bay just south of Santa Cruz is a sprawling complex of nearly 200 exhibits of more than 550 species in a 2 storey building nearly 30 years old: the Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA). Started in 1978, and open to the public in October, 1984, this is truly a wonderful showcase of both the habitats and sea life of an amazing marine region. Costing over $55 million to build, this gift of David and Lucile Packard houses 34 major galleries with permanent and special exhibitions of marine life. There are more than 1000 volunteers and >500 permanent staff who keep this aquarium running smoothly year round.
We enjoyed the splash zone, touch pools, and kelp forest, along with the otter exhibit, but really focused on three main regions: The reefs, the Jellies and Tentacles, an octopus and related species exhibit.
Highly interactive and beautifully displayed, the various exhibits and tanks are extremely well designed. The reef tanks are open on 4 of 6 sides. This means you can look “down” onto the animals, coral and fish, along with being able to see amazing invertebrates throughout. So often you see through a single glass viewing station, and therefore, cannot see any of the other 4 viewing areas. That usually means the creatures are lost or invisible to your view. However, by creating really unique layouts, you could see 4 species of eels all in the same tank, up close and personal.
The Tentacles exhibit highlighted octopuses, squid, cuttlefishes and nautiluses, although there was more about octopuses than the others. It is truly amazing to watch the octopuses travel through the tanks, magically changing color, shape and texture to match their surroundings—in seconds! Really, using muscles and nerves, they are actually able to control their color, alter the texture of the skin (pushing it out to create bumps than mimic the coral), and change their reflectance. They have unique chromatophores in their skin that both contain pigments and reflect light. There are several subclasses of chromatophores based on the color they exhibit (yellow, black, brown, and blue are most common), which are controlled by the brain of the octopus by sensing its environment, and using muscles surrounding the chromatophores to achieve perfect camouflage to match their environment. The exhibit really highlights the amazing diversity within this marine molluscs category. To think that octopuses and nautiluses are related – to say nothing of how they are related to snails and slugs (land equivalents).
Many of the animals are housed in their natural habitat, allowing you to see how they would get around and forage for food, how agile and sneaky they can be. I spent quite some time just watching as their sinuous tentacles would curl and unfurl rhythmically, using their suction cups to hold onto something as well as feel it, sense it, and react to it. There are more than 800 species of cephalopods (mollusks), the largest more than 50 feet, while the smallest are millimeters. The siphon is used to create speed and movement, the ink is both noxious and obscuring by opacity, while very shy and demure, exhibiting the ability to known the differences between human handlers by just touching them with their tentacles. The giant Pacific octopus was the most fun to watch.
Growing up in South Africa, I spent every summer at the beach. I all to vividly remember the “blue-bottles”, stinging Portuguese Man of War that resemble jellyfish, that used to result in intense stinging and burning sensation as they wrapped around your limbs as you bobbed around in the water. I have always had a fascination for these creatures since that time. I even swam in Jellyfish lake (Ongeim’l Tketau) in Palau with their golden jellyfish. This very well laid out exhibit had many various species in one location. They were shown in spaces that had a monochromatic background or shown in circular cylinders that meant you could really see them perfectly. Further, they had dozens of jellies in the same space, so you could spent quite a bit of time examining them, watching them, and observing their mesmerizing movements.
These animals have an aboral surface, with a gastrovascular cavity and then move by using hydrostatic forces through their “skeleton.” They are made of nearly 98% water, with an umbrella of “jelly” (mesoglea). There were several species to observe, including the lion’s mane jellyfish (one of the largest species), the purple-striped jellyfish, the moon jelly, the Pacific sea nettle, and then some really unique hydromedusa: these are the species that have photoproteins that result in bioluminescence. In fact, these proteins have been sequenced and cloned to create fluorescent tags that can be used in genetic sequencing and tagging (part of my day job!). Since jellyfish cannot move well on their own and require currents for transportation, it is difficult to create these movements in commercial exhibits without sucking the jellyfish into the valves. Many of the jellies can be seen upside down, and that is because they are relaxed at that point, just following the current. The MBA actually has developed a unique circular tank with an outflow spread over a large surface area and the inflow comes in as a sheet of water just in front of the outflow so there is no sucking of the jellyfish out of the exhibit! I spent I don’t know how long creating a video of the Beroe forskalii, which creates a rainbow of different lights by diffraction on the combs it has on its body.
Finally, one of the unique things about the MBA is that they produce their own jellies. Starting off with polyps, they raise the temperature of the water from 20 to 25 degrees Celsius, which results in strobilation – or asexual reproduction! Millions of baby jellies or medusae are released and they being to grow quite rapidly, until they result in a bloom of jellies (swarms or blooms of jellies). Of course, they are kept in bowls or bags initially so they don’t bump into the walls of the tanks – which would kill them. They normally only live about 6 months.
Overall, one of the best ways I have spent a day in the past few months – and well worth the cost of the visit ($40 for adults, $25 for children; 9:30 to 5 or 6 pm).
More photos of the Aquarium follow. For legends to any of the photos in this post, please scroll and hold your mouse over an image, or click on the thumbnails below.