Fish stories at Monterey Bay Aquarium

Richard Moreno/For the Nevada Appeal The Monterey Bay Aquarium offers opportunities to get close and personal with fish.

Richard Moreno/For the Nevada Appeal The Monterey Bay Aquarium offers opportunities to get close and personal with fish.

It's mesmerizing to watch jellyfish. Graceful creatures that glide through the water, jellyfish are the elegant ballroom dancers of the fish world. Fortunately, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has the largest permanent collection of jellyfish species in the United States and the biggest jelly exhibits in the world.

Recently, my family and I visited the aquarium, rated the best in the nation in a 2004 Zagat Survey, and found not only tanks of jellyfish but nearly 200 other exhibits displaying some 650 species of plants and animals from the waters off California's Central Coast.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a marvel. Opened more than 21 years ago, the facility is one of the world's finest and most popular aquatic museums. More than 1.7 million people visit the 322,00-square-foot aquarium each year.

And it's worth the effort to see it. The aquarium's 34 galleries range from the impressive, such as the 1 million gallon Outer Bay exhibit (featuring the largest acrylic window in North America) and the 28-foot-high Kelp Forest tank to the entertaining, like the Splash Zone, a hands-on, child-friendly educational gallery.

In fact, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is so big and overwhelming that it can be difficult to absorb everything you see or experience.

During our recent visit, we jumped right in, heading into the newly renovated Ocean's Edge Wing, a section of the aquarium devoted to the coastal habitats of California's Central Coast.

Our first stop was at the Coastal Wetland to Sandy Shore gallery, an interpretive nature center that includes a bat ray pool where visitors can actually touch the rays as well as a shorebird aviary.

From there, we stopped at the new and larger Deep Reef gallery showcasing the giant octopus (there are two in the exhibit, which measures 30 feet wide). A nearby interactive video display describes the octopus, its behavior and physical characteristics.

Of particular note is the Rocky Shore gallery, which features a walk-through acrylic tunnel. As you wander through this clear plastic corridor, you find yourself inside of a crashing wave, experiencing its power as it erupts above your head and drains into tide pools.

A bubble window for children allows them to have a similar experience from inside one of the tide pools.

A new aspect of this part of the aquarium is its focus on the ocean environment, specifically how mankind is affecting the undersea world.

At the "Real-Cost Café," visitors sit in a restaurant setting, complete with video chefs and waitresses, who tell you whether the fish you order is endangered or threatened or of a sustainable species. Be sure to pick up a Seafood Watch guide that lets you know what fish to buy and which to avoid.

The three-story Kelp Forest remains one of the aquarium's highlights with its hundreds of fish, algae and invertebrates. It's relaxing to grab a seat in the large viewing area to watch the sea creatures lazily drift by.

The second floor of the Ocean's Edge Wing is home of the penguin exhibit - always fun creatures to watch - as well as Splash Zone, the most kid-oriented place in the aquarium.

Here, children can view nearly 50 species of fish and play in 30 interactive exhibits including the Coral Reef Play area (with dress up costumes), touch pools, drawing games and several crawl-through bubbles that put children inside an aquatic environment.

And that's less than half of the aquarium facility. More next week.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is located on historic Cannery Row in downtown Monterey, California. It is open daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is $21.95 for adults, $19.95 for seniors, $17.95 for students 13-17 or with college ID, $10.05 for children 3-12, and free for those under 3. For more information, call (831) 648-4800.

- Richard Moreno is the author of "Backyard Travels in Northern Nevada" and "The Roadside History of Nevada" which are available at local bookstores.


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