Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Monterey Bay Aquarium: Fish Far Out of Water

When in Monterey/Pacific Grove, California, my wife and I always make time-space for a real monument to hope in these environmentally perilous times: the Monterey Bay Aquarium, located in Monterey’s Cannery Row.

Monterey Bay was once home to one of the world’s sardine fishing capitals but now, thanks to overfishing (and why enough people aren’t worried and pissed-off about this beats me), it retains only the shells of its former glory. John Steinbeck, who gave Monterey’s Cannery Row neighborhood its name in his titular 1945 novel, would recognize only the tin-roofed exteriors of the many old canneries; like abandoned seashells, their interiors have been take over by another species, namely Touristus garishus who may, at first glance, look as colorful as deep sea monsters, but lack a
certain exotic exquisite aquatic grace, wonder and mystery (except for an excellent antique store on Wave Street, we mostly skirt the rest).

But the one thing that would please Steinbeck, (and one of the legacies of his friend, the pioneering marine biologist Edward “Doc” Ricketts), is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, an example of what people can do when they’re given the opportunity to really care about something. Even the most shark-eyed observer would experience it as a genuine miracle in an era where we seem about all fished out of them. Here, hope for our stained, poisoned and battered planet remains stubbornly, bright and alive.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium opened 25 years ago on October 20, 1984. As the docent on our recent trip, Nancy Larkin, tells it in 1977, a group of marine biologists at Stanford University’s Marine Station (also called Hopkins), located in Pacific Grove, were engaged in some beachside brainstorming in the shadow of the old Hovden cannery, (the last one to close in 1973). Just like in one those old 1930s Hollywood
musicals, someone pointed at the old cannery and piped up: “Hey guys! What d’ya say we turn that old cannery into an aquarium and invite every fish in and around Monterey Bay!” (OK, I made that part up).

Take the Tour, Feed the Fish

Among the marine biology students joining the brainstorm on the beach that day was Nancy Burnett, a daughter of Hewlett-Packard founder David Packard and his wife Lucile. Shortly afterward, along swam Nancy’s sister, Julie Packard, a U.C. Santa Cruz student majoring in marine algae studies.

Nancy and Julie went to their parents and told them what they wanted to (Try imagining Paris Hilton doing anything useful like this. Yeah, hurts the brain, doesn’t it?). With the money and power of the Packard name behind it, the project became a slow-rolling unstoppable wave.David and Lucile Packard not only said yes, but, as Nancy Larkin told us, they provided full start-up funding and personally dived into the project’s development. Packard mere and pere sailed to other aquariums around the world to study both the right and the wrong ways of building and maintaining aquariums. (Big issue: working conditions for the non-aquatic land-living staff). In a
sense, they reeled in the fantastic colorful world of the ocean wilderness up safely onto dry land, benefiting both humans and the splendid life forms that live in the briny deep.

The aquarium, which covers three acres and 300,000 square feet, provides a tidal wave of sensations, especially for new visitors. A backstage room tours provide an excellent calming perspective for the overstimulated visitor. Even after a half-dozen visits, even my largish brain has a hard time wrapping itself around the aquarium's ambitious epic scale.

Inspired by the work of Ed Ricketts, the aquarium is organized along specific undersea environments (or biomes), instead of individual species. One thing this
teaches is how interconnected all undersea life (and, by implication, life on land) is.

With so much to see, this humble space can only touch on a few favorite things. One of the aquarium’s permanent exhibits is the 28-foot deep Kelp Forest. One of the largest aquarium exhibits in the world, this underwater forest cycles through 4,000 gallons of water per minute and teems with sinister sinuous leopard sharks, dozens of other fish species, including hypnotic, shape-shifting schools of sardines, abruptly changing direction with every disturbance like flocks of birds as they swim among the towering trees of kelp (Fun fact: Kelp, despite its giant size and beanstalk shape, is not a plant, but an algae, due to its lack of many of the structures found in plants).

The Kelp Forest

Another favorite sea environment is the Outer Bay, a series of galleries that offers an eerie, powerful and meditative glimpse of life 60 miles offshore, starting with a donut set into a ceiling where an estimated 3,000 anchovies swim in a hypnotic circle. It climaxes in an awesome lovely blue million-gallon aquarium displaying the animals found in the outer bay during a warm El Nino pattern. (For us seafood lovers who find this all a little mouthwatering, the museum also provides a handy “Sustainable Seafood Guide.”)

Even in the midst of this current extinction, our Earth still teems with odd creatures, (some seem spun from the oceanic imagination of H.P. Lovecraft). The weirdest ones of all inhabit our oceans at its greatest, darkest depths. The aquarium does a terrific job of introducing these unique animals in their special exhibits. The current centerpiece exhibit of strange life is “The Secret Lives of Sea Horses” featuring the sea dragon, one of the most delightfully hallucinatory animals on the planet.

No, Not Seaweed

A final tribute must be paid to the museum staff. Of the 1,300 souls who work here, 900 of them are volunteers and you couldn’t find a more friendly and committed team. (Fun Fact: A number of the volunteer divers, charged with entering the tanks for maintenance and animal care, are paraplegics). Everyone here is deeply, but cheerfully, committed to the aquarium’s mission “to inspire conservation of the oceans.”

Volunteer. Donate. Go. Because I said so. Because Nature is always good for your soul. Because your planet, the only one you have, will thank you.

(All photos by Author)

1 comment:

aquaken said...

Thank you for the kind words! I've shared them around the Aquarium. It's always great to hear that we're accomplishing what we hope to accomplish: inspire conservation of the oceans.

Ken Peterson, Communications Director
Monterey Bay Aquarium