Visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium

  • 01 of 11

    Welcome to the Monterey Bay Aquarium

    Visitors at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
    Martha J. Thompson/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

    The Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of California's most popular tourist attractions, often voted among the best aquariums and/or family attractions in the country. It's a big place with a lot to see and do. These pictures take you on a step-by-step tour of the aquarium's highlights and give you an idea of what it's like to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium. If you're planning a visit, you may also find our Monterey Bay Aquarium Visitor's Guide helpful. Look below the index to find more information about visiting Monterey and Carmel.

    In this aerial view, it's easy to see the outlines of the Hovden Cannery which once stood on this spot. You can also see how big the complex is. You may want to read our Monterey Bay Aquarium guide so you'll know how to make the most of your day.

    The aquarium's main entrance is on the back side of the building as shown in this photograph, facing Cannery Row street. On busy days, a very long line can form to buy tickets, but you know better. Buy your tickets online through the aquarium website before you go, stop by the will-call office and you'll be inside much faster.

    What People Think of the Monterey Bay Aquarium

    Anywhere you read about the aquarium, you'll see that almost everyone loves it. The things they mention most often are the kelp forest, sea otters and the awesome bay views from the deck. The biggest complaints are about crowds, parking. Our tips above can help with those issues.

    Some folks think a few things are in need of maintenance and other think it's too expensive. And oddly, we've seen more than one review where people complain because it's "just a gigantic aquarium with fish." I can't quite figure out what they thought they'd see in a place named "Aquarium," but I'm hoping that you don't think it's a bird cage, a dog kennel or a traveling circus.

    I like the Monterey Bay Aquarium. First, there's the irony that more than 35,000 strange and colorful ocean creatures live inside a former cannery. Unlike previous workers in this building who packed sardines into cans, today's employees and volunteers now care for the marine life. They do it so visitors can see the animals and learn more about the ocean and its riches. And they do a brilliant job of that.

    More than 580 of our readers rated the aquarium in a poll. 42% rated it good or awesome, but 47% said it was only so-so.

    Special Exhibits 

    Every few years, the aquarium mounts a large special exhibit that runs for several years. You'll find the current one featured on the aquarium website.

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  • 02 of 11

    Kelp Forest

    Kelp Forest at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
    Robert Freiberger/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

    Turn left after you enter to reach the kelp forest. Housed in a two-story-tall tank, this recreation of the bay outside shows you what it's like to be on the bay floor, watching the kelp sway hypnotically while fish swarm around you. This exhibit is very popular with children.

    Twice a day, a diver enters the exhibit to feed the fish. You'll find the feeding times posted on the wall beside the exhibit, printed on your map or posted at the information desk. Arrive about half an hour ahead of time if you want to sit down and get the best view.

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  • 03 of 11

    Touch Pool

    Touching a Sea Anemone at Monterey Bay Aquarium
    ©2014 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

    Go left past the Kelp Forest to see the fascinating octopus, then through the Habitats of Monterey Bay exhibit to get to the Touch Pools.

    The Touch Pools provide a chance to find out what a few of the ocean creatures actually feel like. In this area, you'll find a pool full of friendly bat rays, almost-birdlike creatures that seem to be as curious about their visitors as the people are about them. Nearby is a shallower, rocky shore pool full of starfish, sea cucumbers and sea urchins. Volunteer guides are on hand to help you learn more.

    On a busy day, the bat rays tend to tire out early and retreat to the back of their pond. Go early for the best experience.

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  • 04 of 11

    Sea Otters

    Sea Otters at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
    Jill Siegrist at Flickr under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

    After you're done with the Touch Pools, go outside to enjoy the views of the Outdoor Tide Pool and Monterey Bay. When you're done, go back in through the middle doors and turn left to reach the Otter exhibit.

    This is possibly the most popular exhibit in the aquarium, spanning two levels where you can watch the lively otters swimming under water or see them on land from above. Three times a day, trainers feed the otters and train them. It's fun to watch, but it's also busy and crowded while it's going on. Times are posted on your aquarium map and at the information desk.

    If you come when it's less crowded, children may enjoy trying to pick out the otters by name based on their photographs posted outside the exhibit. If you want to see the upper part of the sea otter exhibit, do it while you're here. It doesn't connect to the rest of the second floor.

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  • 05 of 11

    Outer Bay

    Outer Bay Exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
    Tom Magliery at Flickr under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

    After you've seen the sea otters, you can stop by the auditorium to see one of the several films presented daily (the schedule is posted just outside the door) or drop by the Portola Cafe for a bit to eat. When you're ready to move on, head for the stairs going up to the Outer Bay exhibit. This may sound odd, but the aquarium's first floor is not continuous, forcing you to go upstairs to get to the rest of the downstairs. The best thing to do next is this: Go to your left and down the stairs to see the Outer Bay tanks.

    The Outer Bay fills an entire wing of the aquarium and focuses on the ocean about an hour's sail from shore, between the water's surface and ocean floor. Its biggest single exhibit is this million-gallon tank full of tuna, sunfish, small sharks and pencil-thin barracuda. With no railings or barriers, you can get right next to the glass, creating an experience that children, in particular, seem to enjoy.

    The benches on both levels here make a great place to rest for a few minutes while you watch the fish swimming by.

    On this level, you'll also find special exhibits that change every few years.

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  • 06 of 11


    Clownfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
    The Tahoe Guy at Flickr under Attribution 2.0 Generic License

    These colorful clownfish look like Nemo and his dad Marlin from the Pixar film, don't they? You can find them in the Splash Zone area.

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  • 07 of 11

    Sea Nettles

    Jellyfish in Monterey Bay Aquarium
    John Elk III / Getty Images

    This exhibit is my favorite. These beautiful orange Sea Nettles drift up and down like bubbles in an oversized lava lamp and right next to them you can see tiny, cranberry-sized sea gooseberries with fluorescent spines.

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  • 08 of 11

    Hanging Out

    Orca Model Hanging at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
    Thom Watson at Flickr under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License

    As you exit the Outer Bay, you'll find Flippers, Flukes and Fun, a kids' play area. When you're done there, head back toward the Outer Bay entrance toward the skywalk, which will take you back to the other side of the aquarium building.

    As you cross the skywalk, take time to enjoy the life-sized sculptures of killer whales, gray whales and dolphins that hang from the ceiling.

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  • 09 of 11

    Anchovy Tank

    Anchovy Tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
    Allie Caulfield at Flickr under Attribution 2.0 Generic License

    You'll find this tank straight ahead just after you cross the skywalk. It's one of many exhibits where you can get really close to the creatures. Anchovies are dark-colored on top and light-colored on the bottom so they blend in with their background whether you're looking at them from the top or from the bottom. They sometimes look like they're yawning, but actually they're just opening their mouths wide to eat.

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  • 10 of 11

    Giant Octopus

    Giant Octopus at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
    ©Betsy Malloy Photography

    The giant Pacific octopus is perhaps the most engaging single creature in the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Its color ranges from dark red to bright orange, depending on its surroundings and it moves around its tank like liquid flowing. It seems like it wants to interact with visitors who stop to admire it and who knows, maybe it does.

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  • 11 of 11

    Before You Go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium

    Kelp Forest, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey County, California USA
    Blaine Harrington III / Getty Images

    Many visitors worry about long lines and crowding at a place this popular. The good news is that the Monterey Bay Aquarium is a big place. Even on the most crowded days, you can still get to see everything, but you may need a little patience to do it. These tips will help you enjoy your visit to the fullest.

    Avoid standing in line at the ticket office. Order Monterey Bay Aquarium tickets online and pick them up at the Will Call window.

    Behind the scenes tours are a great way to learn more about what it takes to run this place. Reserve them in advance (extra fee).

    If you will visit more than one time per year, a Monterey Bay Aquarium membership will save you money. To make it even better, members enter through the side entrance, avoiding lines. Members also get a monthly newsletter, invitations to members-only nights, early admission days and other special activities.

    If you visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium during summer or on a school holiday, lines are longest in the middle of the day. Arrive early, and you'll have more time to enjoy the place.

    You can download their app to learn more about the animals, plan your visit and even find some images to share with your friends.

    Tips for Visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium

    It will take you several hours to see everything at the aquarium, depending on your level of interest. If you don't have that much time, try these tips for seeing the aquarium in a hurry.

    As soon as you get inside, check the feeding schedules and the times for the films shown in the auditorium and schedule the rest of your exploration around them. You can also get text alerts about unscheduled feedings by sending the word "feeding" to 56512.

    You might miss it in the fine print on the map, but if you're celebrating a birthday, anniversary or honeymoon, stop by the information desk.

    If you want to get hands-on in the Touch Pools arrive early and go there first, then tour for 1.5 to 2 hours, break for lunch and start again.

    Each of the stores inside the aquarium has a theme, so if you see something you like, either make note of its location or buy it on the spot.

    You'll find two places to eat inside the aquarium: Cindy's Waterfront and the Cafe, both with menus developed by Napa Valley chef Cindy Pawlcyn. The restaurant gets great reviews, but it's very popular and if you want to eat there, make reservations ahead of time. The cafe also serves very tasty dishes that are served quickly so that you can get back to the exhibits without too much delay.

    Monterey Bay Aquarium Details

    You can check the hours and find out about tickets at the Aquarium website.

    Monterey Bay Aquarium
    886 Cannery Row
    Monterey, CA
    Monterey Bay Aquarium Website

    The Monterey Bay Aquarium is at the west end of Monterey's Cannery Row. You will find parking meters (some with as much as a four-hour limit) and also several paid parking lots nearby.

    During summer and major holidays, the area is very busy. If you have trouble finding a parking place near Cannery Row, tr parking in downtown for the free WAVE visitor shuttle to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It runs from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day.