Today we’re taking a deep dive into the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
I’ll highlight some of the most exciting and memorable experiences that you can have, along with the practicalities of visiting the aquarium.
Worth a Stop – Lovers Point Park
First, I’ll start the show with a hidden gem near the aquarium, Lovers Point Park.
Imagine that Monterey Bay is a letter ‘J.’ Monterey is tucked into the curve of the J, and as you travel up the hook, you meander into the town of Pacific Grove; you can’t really tell that you left Monterey and entered Pacific Grove.
But all along the shoreline of Pacific Grove, on Ocean View Boulevard, there are marine parks, viewpoints, and even a lighthouse.
Today, I’m shining a light specifically on Lovers Point Park.
This is an ideal spot for families and, as the name implies, romantic sunsets. A small protected beach is tucked into the cove, which is perfect for younger kids to splash around in.
The rocky outcroppings will make older kids and some husbands very happy with the bouldering.
There are benches, viewing spots, picnic tables, and even a beachside snack bar. It’s also a great spot to take a stroll with a good friend.
Lovers Point Park is definitely worth a stop.
Why go to Monterey Bay Aquarium?
Monterey Bay Aquarium is located in the heart of Monterey at one end of the famous Cannery Row.
If you have kids, I probably don’t have to try very hard to convince you that an aquarium is a good idea, but Jody and I travel as empty nesters. I feel like adults have no obligation to hit an aquarium or zoo on vacation. No one’s going to give you side-eye for missing that.
So when two adults show up when the doors of the aquarium open and leave 7 hours later as they lock them up, there’s something to that.
And this is not cheap. You may think twice about paying $60 each for adult admission. And forking over $45 for a five to twelve-year-old child will make some parents, let’s say, get overly invested in How. Much. Fun. everyone is having.
Here’s a pro tip: If you think that you might visit the aquarium more than once in a year, spring for a membership.
Or, if you have small children and you want to split up the visit into two or more days instead of that one meltdown-causing day, membership will allow you to come and go.
Exhibits and features
Let me try to convince you that the price of the aquarium is worth it.
I’m not going to bury the lede here.
The new ‘Into the Deep’ exhibit is absolutely our favorite.
We went back to see the jellyfish three times, and I have a funny story about that in the travel tip section.
The glow-in-the-dark, science fiction-like creatures that live deep, deep in the ocean, are featured in this exhibit.
There’s a companion 15-minute film about how they made the ‘Into the Deep’ exhibit. I highly recommend it.
If this was the only exhibit, we would have gone home happy.
Sea otters are our next favorite at any aquarium.
I mean, how can you not love sea otters?
The five resident otters rotate. Basically, they have work shifts. This prevents them from getting stressed out from performing.
That’s not politically correct – it’s called “animal enrichment” these days. When the otters come out for feeding and enrichment, a museum docent will explain everything that’s happening and why.
I’ve been to a lot of sea otter shows in my day, and this was at the top of the list.
On the website, each otter has a profile. They have names, history, and personality notes.
Like otters, penguins are very personable.
Monterey Bay Aquarium is home to a flock – a family – a group – of African penguins. Again, if you can get to a feeding, it will be worth your time.
And again, check out the website penguin page.
Each penguin has a name and a profile. This would make a great scavenger hunt to see if you can identify them by name. I’m adding that idea to my list for my next visit.
If you enjoy penguin gossip, their profiles also tell you which penguins are dating.
Right near the penguin exhibit, you’ll find the kelp forest, the splash zone, touch pools, the Monterey Bay habitat exhibit, and a children’s play area.
In general, this area of the aquarium is well-loved by families. That’s not secret code for anything😉. I just mean that penguins and bright tropical fish, a walkthrough wave tunnel, the splash zone, a giant Pacific octopus, and sharks are hard to beat.
The open sea exhibit is the aquarium’s largest and most expansive display.
Somehow, an incredible array of creatures coexist, including hammerhead sharks, stingrays, sea turtles, and a shimmering school of anchovies, among others.
To enhance your experience, I recommend scheduling one of the feedings at the ‘Open Sea’ exhibit into your day. The feeding show includes narration, which really makes the exhibit come to life.
There’s plenty of seating in front of the 90-foot viewing window, giving you a chance to take a load off.
And finally, step out on the deck and take a seat.
Monterey Bay is part of the National Marine Sanctuary.
If you’re patient, and it’s your lucky day, you might see a humpback whale or dolphin going about its business.
More than likely, you will see a few sea otters or sea lions.
Make the most of your visit
Now that you’re convinced to put Monterey Bay Aquarium on your bucket list, how can you make the most of your visit?
When to go?
Summer tourism is pretty insane in California, in general. If you can avoid summer, go any other time.
If you have a very flexible schedule, I suggest winter, or my favorite months, October and November. The weather is probably going to be beautiful in the fall.
But if summer is all you have, then my best advice is to get there before the doors open – well before the doors open.
If you do go on a busy day, I have a trick that we always use at busy attractions – head to the back of the building and work your way out. You’ll have the place to yourself for the first hour, and as you move to the front, the late-sleeping crowd will be heading to the back.
We easily found parking in a lot about a block away, but it was November. Also, assume all parking is paid parking in Monterey. You can pay for parking at the kiosks with a credit card. Hoarding coins for meters is a thing of the past, thank goodness.
You can’t buy tickets at the door.
Let me say it again… If you show up at the door without tickets, you’ll be huddling in a shady spot trying to download the app so that you can fill out what feels like a job application and then buy tickets on your phone.
I went through all that pain so that you don’t have to.
Get the tickets ahead of time, at least in the comfort of your hotel room.
When you arrive, they’ll give you a schedule of all the feedings and the films. It’s worth it to plan your visit around these. We went to all four films that were on offer during our visit.
They’re short 15-minute documentaries, getting you behind the scenes of all the aquarium’s projects. We were very happy we took the time out.
And honestly, those 15 minutes off your feet really help you keep going all day long.
As I mentioned before, there are also feedings scheduled throughout the day at different exhibits. We went to a few of those.
The sea otter feeding was a delight because how can you be crabby watching sea otters? That was a pun for otter fans🥁.
The open sea feeding was also amazing. The tank is home to a large school of sardines (or anchovies, I can’t remember). And watching them do their shimmer ballet was so mesmerizing.
Once you plug any scheduled events into your day, I suggest that you start with the exhibit that you’re most excited about. Get to that one while you’re fresh, then everything else is just gravy.
As you come and go to the feedings and films, you can tour other exhibits on your way. We marked our map as we went and then circled back to see anything that we missed.
It is a large aquarium, but it’s not Disneyland. You won’t get worn to a pulp doing a little crisscrossing between lands.
I do want to mention that there are guided tours. They’re available for an added fee of $24. You get a tour of all the restricted areas and, let’s say, the back rooms of the aquarium.
And remember that the aquarium is at one end of the historic Cannery Row.
You may want to save some time and energy to walk up and down – its about three blocks – and take in the historic buildings and read all the interpretive signs that explain the significance of this area.
There are many shops, luxury hotels, and eateries to choose from.
Travel tip of the week
My travel tip of the week is to take advantage of any live cams – as in live cameras.
As I told you, we loved the jellyfish exhibit the most, and we wanted to take home some footage so that we could knit it together and make our own little Zen video of all of the different jellyfish.
We stood in the jellyfish exhibit for probably an hour and waited until there was a moment where there were no people standing in front of the tanks, and we would shoot some video and then wait and shoot some more video and wait and shoot some more video.
I don’t know how, but YouTube caught wind when we got home that we were obsessed with jellyfish. And Jellyfish live cams at the aquarium started popping up in our YouTube feed.
It turns out that they videotape the jellyfish 24 hours a day, and the cams are available for anybody to watch, with nice soothing music.
When other people had their TV fireplace going, we had the jellyfish cam going all of December. It was so relaxing.
The aquarium hosts live cameras in many of the exhibits. You can watch the sharks, the sea otters, the penguins, and more.
But I suggest that you tune into the jellyfish cam. You can find it by searching for ‘Monterey Bay Aquarium jellyfish’ – and have your stress melt away.
Taking advantage of live cams applies to many places.
Many national parks, zoos, and nature preserves are offering live cameras. Generally, you can access these from the location’s website, or you can just search for what you want on YouTube.
All the aquarium’s live cams are listed here.