Monterey is practically synonymous with its world-class aquarium overlooking Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which protects dense kelp forests and a sublime variety of marine life, including seals and sea lions, dolphins and whales. The aquarium sits on the edge of Cannery Row, which made Monterey the sardine capital of the world in the 1930s.
Perhaps it's a bit ironic that a fish cannery was converted into a well-regarded center for studying and conserving marine life, but today all kinds of aquatic creatures inhabit the aquarium's halls and outside areas, from sea stars and slimy sea slugs to animated sea otters and surprisingly nimble 800lb tuna. Every minute, up to 2,000 gallons of seawater are pumped into the three-story kelp forest, re-creating as closely as possible the natural conditions you see out the windows to the east.
The large fish of prey are at their charismatic best during mealtimes; pick up the latest feeding schedule at the ticket counter. Most entertaining are the sea otters, which may be seen basking in the Great Tide Pool outside the aquarium, where they are readied for reintroduction to the wild.
Even new-agey music and the occasional infinity-mirror illusion can't detract from the astounding beauty of jellyfish in the Jellies Gallery. To see marine creatures – including hammerhead sharks, ocean sunfish and green sea turtles – that outweigh kids many times over, ponder the awesome Open Sea tank. Upstairs and downstairs you’ll find touch pools, where you can get close to sea cucumbers, bat rays and tide-pool creatures. Younger kids love the Splash Zone, with interactive bilingual exhibits in English and Spanish, and penguin feedings at 10:30am and 3pm.
The aquarium is much more than an impressive collection of glass tanks, however – thoughtful placards underscore the bay’s cultural and historical contexts, too. For a more in-depth experience, join the behind-the-scenes tour. There's also a special family tour calibrated to children under eight.
To avoid long lines in summer and on weekends and holidays, buy tickets in advance or arrive early or after 4pm. Allow at least 2½ hours for your visit, although you might feel like extending it to a full-day affair, so get your hand stamped and take a break for lunch. Tickets bought after 4pm are also good for the following day.
Metered on-street parking is limited. Parking lots offering daily rates are plentiful just uphill from Cannery Row.