Thursday, July 12, 2012

Monterey Bay Aquarium & "The Jellyfish Experience"

While in California this past April, we knew that the Monterey Bay Aquarium was a must see. I am fortunate that my husband not only tolerates my requirement of seeing every zoo and aquarium available wherever we go, but he enjoys them as well.  Our perspectives are often quite different, but just because I have a marine science background and also have spend innumerable hours in classrooms both at the front and in the seats it does not mean he isn't embracing the experience as well. Quite often it is this outside point of view that keeps me light and happy instead of locked into the left brain that interrupts fun with quips of how this might be inaccurate or that might not be how I would have expressed information. Whatever, dude!  Sometimes just enjoying the beauty and retaining that open excitement is what makes for the best memories and even better stories later in life.
 When we arrived there were some major factors to be considered on this trip:
1) We were traveling with a 2 year old who requires naps in order to avoid becoming a whining terror.
2) We were traveling with Grandma and Grandpa who aren't necessarily as enthusiastic about all things aquatic like myself.
These might seem like simple speed bumps to the single and those without children, but to anyone who has truly tackled family trips across the country will understand my dilemmas.
So we managed to find the perfect way to experience the Monterey Bay Aquarium even with the previously mentioned hurdles.  We stayed in a lovely resort that had a concierge and a package deal - get your tickets through the hotel and receive 2 days for the price of 1!! This means that on the first day we were not running around like maniacs trying to experience every little detail of the facility, and not having to rush around is a priceless perk rarely enjoyed when a toddler is involved.  This particular blog entry is chocked full of photos, so take your time and enjoy the captions!

For better details on the actual size and structure of the Monterey Bay Aquarium exhibits, check out their website:
because, seriously, I could drag on for days about the details I did witness and weeks about speculations on animal husbandry, staff interactions, and exhibit design.  Instead I choose to focus on the experience itself, particularly for a marine biologist and mom who just thrilled to check a box off on the overall bucket list. I must add that this checked box now has an *asterisk next to it to ensure that someday I return. (my list never seems to shrink...)

The first 2 photographs were taken of the same exhibit, a live kelp forest. It was one of the most spectacular of the day(s). Being an Atlantic coast baby, algae is so incredibly different in my local ocean world, and having worked with aquaria including live marine plants and algae, I was absolutely stunned by the magnitude of these 20' strands of slow waving habitat. The Kelp Forest has 2 different viewing levels, and just like virtually every exhibit in the place, an interactive component to help identify the fish and other animals living inside. This computer program passed the toddler test for entertainment/education as well!

The newest exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA) is "The Jellies Experience", which opened on March 31st, 2012.  We visited the Wednesday after opening weekend and were extremely privileged to be some of the first visitors to take it all in. The following are some highlights of the "Experience" for us.
Cassiopeia, the upside-down jellyfish, is my personal favorite
The upside-down jellyfish is precisely that - they swim right side up (which means the bell of the animal pulses to produce a small bit of forward thrust) but settle on the bottom with the tentacles reaching up to the surface.  This is because there is symbiotic algae growing on the tentacles! The green strands on the jellies pictured above are clumps of that algae.  These jellies can still sting, but are not as severe as the more famous stinging nettles, etc.
Jace sitting on the "bell" of a harmless jelly
The Jelly Experience is a very dark space but filled with black lights and glowing displays.  While I personally didn't care for the psychedelic theme of the overall experience, each individual aquarium and educational exhibit was remarkable. Even the large jellies that children (and adults) could climb and sit upon was a fun and different way to sit and enjoy the animals.
fascinated by the few black jellies sprinkled throughout this tank
The tanks were all shapes and sizes from tiny and planktonic, filled with baby jellies, to huge and bulbous, giving wonderful 3D views of them swimming.  After speaking with a variety of professional aquarist, the jellyfish exhibits are some of the hardest to maintain since the animals are so delicate - but one would never get that impression from the scope and scale of MBA's jelly world. I also appreciated the special walk-thru light up "combs" in the area focusing comb jelly. Since comb jellies aren't a true jellyfish (neither is the man-o-war, by the way) I was pleasantly surprised to find them there anyway.
Jacen's finger painted jelly goes for a swim on the interactive wall of jellies
From light shows to tunnels, there was a striking amount of fun things for a toddler to do! Above is a unique interactive exhibit that had several consoles where anyone could use their fingers to create a personal jellyfish that literally swims across the screen / tank for all to see! Once you get the "big" kids to share it was pretty cool. This ended up being a great lesson for Jace in "waiting your turn".
Lots and lots of Touch Tanks!
The Touch Tank is such a part of my history as an environmental educator, that there is no way we are passing up the chance to interact with some cool critters. From large decorator crabs to knobby sea stars, our 2 year old was ready to meet them all!  I lost count at the number of touch tanks found in several different locations throughout the Aquarium.  They were all well manned and OPEN!  The volunteers and staff from the scheduled talks to the gift shop had something very interesting in common - a GREAT ATTITUDE!  There were people everywhere and speaking all languages, yet each member of the MBA crew remained pleasant and information while keeping a wonderfully relaxed demeanor.  The impression that everyone actually wanted to be there is vital to the presentation of the entire center.

Another cool aspect of the MBA is that the facility was an old cannery, so the architectural lay out of the facility is not in a traditional style. I sincerely wish our camera batteries hadn't died while visiting because some of the original equipment was still in place to commemorate the history of the Monterey Bay and its interactions with the humans that rely upon it. Alas, I do not have those photos.
Love the intensity of my little pirate scouting the horizon
One the second day of our adventure, we explored the even more toddler friendly areas that included floating play-type interactions about tidal shifts and a wondrous viewing area of the Monterey Bay itself.
Jacen's reaction when we told him we were going back to the Aquarium the next day. The quote: "Holy Cow!" he says.
I was so relieved about day 2 partly because we had skipped the entire wing of the seahorse area in order to avoid skipping nap time.  Maybe I simply have a soft spot for those delicate creatures of the undersea grasslands, but it there were much more than sea dragons in this place!

Just as expansive and thorough as The Jellyfish Experience, we found the sea horses to be fascinating. Still dark in many areas, there was plenty of room to walk around and look at displays without feeling crowded.  A significant feat for any busy aquarium.  I liked that so many aquaria were low enough to the ground that a toddler could look at the animals without having to climb an adult or part of the exhibit.
As part of the interactive play, Jace and I took on the role of a sea horse hiding from predatory fish by changing our color or hiding in the colorful habitat.
Having large scale sea horses to interact with created far more than a great photo-op, it allowed for a personal interaction with a creature that is far to sensitive to live in a Touch Tank.
How do I get one of these for my ceiling at home?
 From the variety of whale and shark species (replicas, don't worry) hanging from the ceilings to the open atmosphere and giant windows viewing the Monterey Bay, this Aquarium not only met the very high expectations that had been building in my mind since I was a child, but surpassed it and left us more than grateful that a second day was available for us to continue our explorations.

So, if you do plan on exploring the Monterey Bay Aquarium, show up early for multiple reasons: parking is tricky if you don't know the area or aren't staying within walking distance.  Take your entire party into consideration; when traveling with those who will struggle with a long walk or need a nap after a few hours, you might need to take a second day if the plan is to actually see and experience everything.  If you want to spend an hour with the otters, plan for that too - it is easy to spend a entire day in this exceptional place.

While I know you wouldn't skip something on your bucket list when the opportunity arises, but be sure to give adequate time to fully embrace that experience too. Don't always cut corners when it comes to yourself!

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