The Monterey Bay Aquarium has been a top tourist attraction and family favorite for decades. There is no guessing as to why. The amazing location as it sits on the edge of the Pacific Ocean with waves crashing along the cliffs and walls below should draw a crowd in itself. But to top that, its home is a former sardine factory on the historic Monterey Cannery Row and houses many one of a kind exhibits.
It first opened in October 1984 and will celebrate 35 years this fall. My parents bought a family membership all those years ago so we could visit as much as we wanted in a given year. I won’t tell you how old I was at the time. Let’s all just pretend I was an infant that happened to have a really well-developed memory and can now share my decades of knowledge with you.
I recall waiting in a long line and pushing through a crowd to see the Great White Shark on exhibit back in 2004. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is the only aquarium that has successfully had a great white shark on exhibit for longer than 5 days and they did it twice. In 2004 and in 2011. These were impressive to see up close for sure but there are plenty of other things to see including plenty of other sharks like the leopard and hammerhead sharks that still swim at the aquarium.
8 Must-See Exhibits
There were some must-see exhibits when I was a kid and as I matured, those same exhibits remained my favorites. Now as a mother, I am delighting in bringing my kids a couple of times a year as well. I am amazed how they too have the same favorites. With so much to see and do, the must-see animals, fish, and interactive exhibits will excite and educate all ages.
Below are all the attractions our family loves each and every time we visit. I highly suggest any visit you make should include these stops and to spend plenty of time at each of them. The beauty of the Monterey Bay Aquarium is that it is small enough to not feel rushed but has so much to offer that you are never bored with always more to see and do.
Here are the top 8 exhibits we recommend. Below you will find more details about each include some facts and viewing secrets we wanted to share.
- Kelp Forest
- The Open Sea
- Sea Otters
- Bat Ray Touch Pool
- Wave Crash Tunnel
- Giant Pacific Octopus
This was the first exhibit with living kelp when it opened up back in 1984. I remember how large the kelp forest tank looked to me and how it towered over me and kept going up like it was reaching from the sea floor to the clouds. Who am I kidding, it still towers over lil ole me!
It is 28 feet tall and holds 335,000 gallons of water. The king of this exhibit seems to be the giant sea bass. I swear he likes to pose for pictures with guests and often swims close to the glass right next to guests. The crowds in this area are large on busy days and when it is feeding time you do not want to miss this. Here is my secret, watch from the second floor. If you get a spot on the railing it is a great view of the entire tank and the scuba diver that does the feeding while talking to the crowd.
THE OPEN SEA
This is Ian’s favorite. This enormous exhibit holds 1.2million gallons of water. Yes, more than a million gallons! We are always on the lookout in this huge tank for the green sea turtles and my favorite, the sunfish. There is also a swarm of sardines that circle together that reminds us of all of the ones in Finding Nemo. They shimmer as they swim around thanks to the daylight that streams down from above. It creates a soothing whirl across the exhibit that I find very relaxing.
SEA OTTERS, OH THE CUTE SEA OTTERS
The otters are always on the move, playing with toys, diving, and swimming right up against the glass. People are often surprised at how large they are. My kids associate cuteness often times with tiny things, like puppies and kittens. And who am I as a petite mom to argue with smallest = cutest, right? But the average size/weight of these female sea otters are up to 4 feet and 50 pounds
All the aquarium's sea otters are female and all are rescued, often found abandoned. The feeding time is a great time to visit this exhibit. We have seen so many different feeding methods that it is fun to see every time we go or even go more than once on the same visit. In a recent visit, they were fed scallops, shrimp, clams, and squid inside clear tubing to help the sea otters keep up their skill of working for their food. Here is my secret - the best spot to stand for some reason is the upstairs viewing deck on the far right of the tank closest to the restaurant. We do not know why but the sea otters love to hang in this corner a lot and dive and play with toys.
PENGUINS - SAY HI TO MONTY FOR US!
Ok, it isn’t PC to say you have a favorite penguin. Much like you cannot say you have a favorite child. But my kids will be the first to tell you that they are Monty fans. You can find him easily and say Hi for us during your next visit. All the penguins have a name tag on their flippers. During one visit we heard that his 1st birthday was going to be the next day. The kids were excited about that news but bummed that I was not allowing a return trip the next day. So we wished him a happy last day of being zero?! Penguin feedings are also a highlight and they occur 2x a day.
BAT RAY TOUCH POOL
Roll up your sleeves and take a chance at touching a bat ray. I will not divulge how they feel and keep that a surprise for your visit. I will tell you that watching first-timers in shock as they pull back their arm after the first touch is very funny. (do not worry it is not a bad thing - I promise!) Here is my Secret - Most of the time the bat rays tend to hang out along the back wall where visitors cannot touch and along the left side of the tank. This is where we always stand and catch a quick pet along their backs as they glide by. Make sure to hit up one of the hand sanitizers when you are done in the touch area.
WAVE CRASH TUNNEL
This tunnel is upstairs near the Bay Ray Touch Pool. You will know you are near it when you hear the combined sounds of squeals of delights and the crashing waves rushing over the tunnel and into the pools outside. I would say this is a highlight for kids in the 3-6-year-old range for sure. But if you are 96, I bet you like it too. It is fun to be under a rushing wave and not get wet. This is a great photo and video spot so get your cameras ready.
My favorite place in the entire aquarium is the Jellies exhibit! There is something about the dark lighting that showcases the glowing jellies in their tanks. They are so graceful as they float along and illuminate the exhibit. It is almost like watching an underwater ballet. If I were to ever fall into an involuntary trance, I am sure this is where it will happen. As a member, certain evenings are open for sleepovers and if our family ever does this, my sleeping bag and pillow will be right in front of the sea nettles for some sweet dreams.
GIANT PACIFIC OCTOPUS
Near the Kelp Forest is a colossus wonder, the Giant Pacific Octopus. They can weigh up to 50 pounds and reach 6 feet across tentacle to tentacle. Often times the light in the exhibit is out but if you are lucky enough to come by when it is on, expect to be engrossed. As the octopus moves rhythmically in the tank, the tentacles seem to be doing a hustle across the glass and floor of the enclosure. The suckers are too numerous to count, though we give it a try each visit.
FEEDING TIMES YOU DO NOT WANT TO MISS
Must See Feeding Times, ranked in our order of Favorites:
Sea Otters 3x a day
Penguins 2x a day
Kelp Forest 2x a day
Open Sea 1x a day
FAVORITE SHOWS IN THE AUDITORIUM
Luna: A Sea Otter's Story 3x a day
Project White Shark 3x a day
I have no doubt you and your family will love a day visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Whether you come from near like us, or far, this is a necessary part of any visit to Monterey. For the latest prices, hours, feeding times and all other information visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s official site at https://www.montereybayaquarium.org/