The Monterey Bay Aquarium is the best aquarium, hands down. It’s perfect for a family outing for all ages. It’s got a beautiful display of ocean life, and it’s heavily involved in research and conservation, making it a feel-good place to visit. There isn’t any guilt about orcas kept in little tanks because they don’t do that. Want to see a whale? Look out from the observation deck and you may see some migrating by because the Monterey Bay Aquarium is an extension of the ocean, built right up against the water, with waves crashing against it. Now is the time to visit, before summer kicks in and to see the new Tentacles exhibit. Thinking about going? We’re here to help!
Our tips for visiting:
* Sign up for text alerts when you arrive by texting “Feeding” to 56512. This is a little known, but amazing option. It’s a one-day only opt in, which means you won’t get stuck with aquarium updates for life, but on the day of your visit, you’ll get texts about unscheduled feedings and other spur-of-the-moment announcements, like whales breaching off the shore that are visible from the observation deck. Everyone can see the schedule of daily feedings, which means those often have crowds, but those unscheduled feedings tend to be much quieter. I happened to be standing in the Tentacles exhibit when I heard the squid were about to be fed. A small group of us got to see those guys quickly chase, hunt, and swallow their prey. It felt like a private viewing. The text program is cleared out each day, which is why it’s important to sign up the day of your visit and not the night before.
* Consider an overnight stay with a two-day pass. Living close to Monterey poses a big question: do you make it a day trip, leaving early and returning home late, or do you stay overnight? The aquarium can easily be seen in a few hours, therefore in the past, we’ve made it a day trip, leaving home really early and arriving just before opening when parking is incredibly plentiful. Getting in early means seeing the exhibits before crowds hit their peak, but it means a long, tiring day. An alternative is that local hotels are the only place where special two-day pass packages are sold. If you stay a night at a participating hotel (and the list of options is long), you can buy two-day passes, which means you can arrive in the afternoon when crowds begin decreasing at 2 p.m., catch the aquarium before closing, and return again the next morning. That avoids the mid-day crowds, and avoids being overwhelmed by trying to pack in everything into one day.
* Visit during weekdays, if you can, especially Tuesday – Thursday. No surprise, weekends mean larger crowds.
*When taking photos, turn off your flash! You’ll get a better picture without reflection from the glass, and you’re less likely to disturb the fish and fellow guests. No one likes a flash going off in a dark room.
*Bring a sweater! Monterey can be chilly any time of year.
*For some excellent seal-watching, walk uphill away from the aquarium and take a right turn down the walking and bike path. On the other side of Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station next to the aquarium is a protected beach where seals – often mamas and babies – rest in the sheltered zone.
*Food – While Cannery Row has plenty of options, including quick stuff like Starbucks and Pinkberry, the aquarium offers great, locally sourced food with a view. Chef Cindy Pawlcyn even has her own full service place inside the aquarium.
*Consider a behind-the-scenes tour. They’re not that expensive and not too long, but they add value to the visit. We got to see the tanks from different vantage points, learning more about the animals, including educational and fun anticdotes, saw food prep, learning about their breeding program for jellies, and my favorite: we got to put our hands into a tank of baby jellyfish. It was like a low risk dare that didn’t hurt.
*Set meeting points with your kids, and consider using a pen to write your cell phone number on your child’s arm. I like to do this any crowded place we attend, and while the aquarium has plenty of staff around to help, the dark exhibits and exciting displays make it easy to get separated. Set a corner in each exhibit where you’ll meet up every few minutes or before moving onto the next exhibit.
Not the greatest picture of sardines, but I love the open-mouthed one who looks like he’s about to nip the guy in front of him in the tail.
The Moon jellies are beautiful to watch, actually The Jellies Experience was my favorite part of the aquarium. So beautiful, but so painful. Both of my kids were strung last summer. Not fun. When looking at my photos, I was blown away by the beauty of this species, until I remembered that these are lights attached to the ceiling.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a place to visit more than once. As kids grow, different areas of the aquarium may be of interest, but then all exhibits appeal to all ages. Penguins are popular with the little ones, but then I love them, too. Even though I’m not a kid, I still loved touching the sea stars, too. There is so much for everyone, and with it’s proximity to the Bay Area, there is no excuse for not making regular visits.
Disclosure: I visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium as a guest. All opinions are my own.