There are some strange and magical new residents at Monterey Bay Aquarium. Take the tiny, ethereal yet deadly (to some) sea angel, a seemingly genteel swimming snail that actually uses its little buccal cones to pry prey from their shells. Or the bright red blood-belly comb jelly, an endlessly watchable specimen thanks to the way it refracts light, which is almost invisible to its predators because the red turns to black in the darker depths. Or how about a giant Japanese spider crab, whose sheer size and 10-foot arm span will intimidate anyone of humanlike proportions?
They’re all part of a brand-new exhibition called Into the Deep: Exploring Our Undiscovered Ocean (or En lo Profundo: Explorando Nuestro Océano Desconocido) at Monterey Bay Aquarium in northern California, a captivating 10,000-square-foot collection with displays in both English and Spanish that will run for the next eight years at the already world-class aquarium.
The exhibition was quite a feat to pull off; in fact, it was “the most complicated and challenging” project Monterey Bay Aquarium’s vice president of exhibitions Beth Redmond-Jones has been involved with for 30 years. She’s part of the team that plucked these wondrous specimens from the murky depths in conjunction with MBARI, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.
Monterey Bay is a perfect site for such an exhibition. As anyone who’s seen Barack Obama’s national parks show on Netflix will know, it’s home to an underwater canyon as deep as the Grand Canyon. However, collecting and protecting the animals took some doing. Researchers had to record the exact temperature, oxygen levels, and pH levels at the depth each animal was found—and recreate that back in the tanks. We got a peek behind the scenes one early morning this month and saw a whole world of pumps, valves, and tanks that keep the show going and the animals healthy.
As visitors move along dark corridors, exploring rooms dedicated to the midwater and the ocean floor, all manner of flora and fauna reveal themselves, including deep sea coral, and the wonderfully named predatory tunicates (invertebrates anchored to the sea bed), droopy sea pens (a colony of polyps), and bone-eating worms. Many are not on display at any other aquarium. As we gazed at the blood-belly comb jelly, Redmond-Jones told us we were the only people in the world currently looking at them.
There are also some creatures, like the Red-x comb jelly, that are yet to be formally classified and described. More will be added in coming years; an Instagram feed projection at the end of the exhibit lets people interact with the latest news and discoveries.
Redmond-Jones is excited for people to see the “amazing biodiversity of the deep sea,” as well as “some bioluminescence no one’s ever seen before,” and hopes to show people things they can do personally to help the deep sea. Some brilliantly executed games and visuals bring home the sobering truth about plastic and how it severely affects life in the ocean.
“We know more about space than the deep sea,” Redmond-Jones says. “People think of the deep sea as a B movie,” she adds, but there’s much more to this unexplored realm, where “Dr Seuss–looking” creatures abound, and many are a model of “exquisiteness and elegance.”
If you’re visiting Monterey Bay . . .
There’s plenty to keep you occupied on this salty, sun-dazzled stretch of coast. Exploring the rest of the aquarium will easily take up one morning, and Cannery Row, the historic seaside street that used to be a hub of sardine canning—is worth a stroll. This is Steinbeck territory, and a number of his more comic novels, including Cannery Row and Tortilla Flats, are set here.
To fully get a sense of the place, pick up a copy of either book at the National Steinbeck Center in nearby Salinas, which does an excellent job of explaining his life in the region via interactive displays. My son asked to go back there again, which is a first for any museum for that six-year-old. Salinas itself has a relaxed main street full of coffee, craft beer, and taco joints (try female-owned Brew-N-Krew Ale House).
Back in Monterey, you’ll want to explore downtown, the wharf, and the stunning coastline that stretches south from the aquarium, past windswept Monterey pines, tidepools, and small sandy beaches before reaching the famous Pebble Beach. The best way to cover all this ground is on an e-bike. Mad Dogs & Englishmen has top-of-the-range Specialized models that won’t leave you stranded.
Options for food and drink abound. There’s a decent little alfresco breakfast spot called First Awakenings a few blocks from the aquarium and good coffee is available in the town center itself. Fish and chips or clam chowder is a must. One newer option for elevated Mexican food with golf course views is Hay’s Place at Pebble Beach. Its roasted elote (corn on the cob slathered in queso fresco, cotija cheese, and chipotle aioli) wlll stay with me for some time.
For more ideas, check our weekend guide to Monterey.
Where to stay in Monterey
To stay in the heart of Monterey, and get a real feel for the place, book a night or two at the Monterey Plaza. Here you’ll find many of the hotel essentials—comfortable beds, big baths, and a lobby for people-watching to the sound of a piano—as well as irresistible views of the water if you get lucky, and some rooftop hot tubs. It’s a great spot to watch the ebb and flow of daily life in the early morning, too, those dawn hours that Steinbeck writes so evocatively of in Cannery Row: “a time of great peace, a deserted time, a little era of rest . . . the hour of the pearl—the interval between day and night when time stops and examines itself.”
Book now: Monterey Plaza
We also love Carmel Valley Ranch—a 500-acre resort several miles inland that offers all manner of activities for kids and adults, from beekeeping to equine therapy. This Easter it hosted a big Sunday brunch and one of the best egg hunts our six-year-old reporter has found.
Book now: Carmel Valley Ranch