Visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Visitors at 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 family attractions in the country. It's a big place with a lot to see and do. In fact, there's so much that planning a trip can feel a little intimidating. 

This guide will answer all your questions, explain your options, and set you up for an enjoyable, stress-free visit.

Best Time to Go 

You can see everything even on the most crowded days, but you may need a little patience to do it. If you use these tips for timing, you can make even more out of your day.

Any time of year, most visitors rush over to the aquarium first thing in the morning, thinking they'll beat the crowds, but they get it wrong. In fact, it's less busy in the late afternoon. Arrive about two to three hours before closing time, and you'll have as much time inside as the average visitor.

The best days to go are Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, especially during the summer tourist season.

The best months are off-season, which is roughly mid-September through mid-May. But to avoid crowds, you still need to avoid holiday weekends and school breaks. 

What to Know Before You Go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Most people love the aquarium, especially the kelp forest, sea otters, and the awesome bay views from the deck. The biggest complaints are about crowds and parking, issues that the tips in this article can help with.

Some folks who visit think a few things are in need of maintenance. Others think it's too expensive. And oddly, there's more than one review out there where people complain because it's "just a gigantic aquarium with fish." Who knows what that reviewer thought they'd see in a place named "Aquarium," but to make it clear, it's not a birdcage, a dog kennel, or a traveling circus.

Animal Feedings

You could spend most of your day at the aquarium just watching the animals eat. Several times a day, trainers and divers feed the otters, penguins, and fish in the Open Sea and Kelp Forest exhibits.

You can find the feeding times posted at the aquarium website. At the aquarium, they are on the wall beside each exhibit, printed on the aquarium maps, and at the information desk.

If you download the aquarium app, you can use it to set reminders for feedings, and other things don't want to miss. And you can get text alerts about unscheduled feedings by sending the word "feeding" to 56512.

Things to Do at the Aquarium

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

Keep reading for detailed descriptions of the aquarium's popular exhibits, 

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Kelp Forest

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

Housed in a two-story-tall tank, the Kelp Forest is full of the same plants and animals you would find on the Monterey Bay floor just outside the aquarium's back door.

Stand close to the windows and watch the kelp sway hypnotically while fish swarm around you. Space out for a minute or two. Kids love to stand and watch the fish swimming around, too, but they also enjoy being there at feeding time.

Twice a day, a diver enters the exhibit to feed the fish. Arrive about half an hour ahead of time if you want to sit down and get the best view.

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Sea Otters

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

The sea otters are possibly the most popular exhibit in the aquarium, and you can see them from two levels. You can watch them swimming underwater on the ground floor or see them on land from the walkway above. If you want to visit the upper part of the sea otter exhibit, do it while you're here. It might seem like you could do that later when you go upstairs, but it doesn't connect to the rest of the second floor.

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. Arrive a few minutes early to watch or wait until it's over to get a better look inside the exhibit.

Children may enjoy trying to pick out the otters by name, matching them to their photographs posted outside the exhibit. 

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Jellyfish in Monterey Bay Aquarium
John Elk III / Getty Images

In the Jellies exhibit, you can watch orange sea nettles drift up and down like bubbles in an oversized lava lamp. Next to them, you can see tiny, cranberry-sized sea gooseberries with fluorescent spines. Nearby you'll find plenty more fascinating jellyfish species that will make you go Wow!

On the way into the jellies exhibit, look up to see the anchovy tank. Anchovy fish 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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Outer Bay

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

The Outer Bay exhibit fills an entire wing of the aquarium and focuses on the ocean that is about an hour's sail from shore, between the water's surface and ocean floor.

Its largest 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.

As you exit the Outer Bay, you'll find Flippers, Flukes, and Fun, a kids' play area. 

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Touch Pools and Splash Zone

Touching a Sea Anemone at Monterey Bay Aquarium

Betsy Malloy Photography

The Touch Pools provide a chance to find out what a few of the ocean creatures actually feel like. 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.

If you want to get hands-on in the Touch Pools, go there first. On busy days, the bat rays sometimes get tired and retreat to the back of their pond.

And don't miss the adorable penguins which aren't Monterey natives but are darling nevertheless. They are nearby in the Splash Zone.

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The Giant Octopus

Giant Octopus at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Betsy Malloy Photography

The giant Pacific octopus is one of the smallest exhibits in the entire aquarium, but it's also perhaps its most engaging single creature.

Its color ranges from dark red to bright orange, depending on its surroundings and it moves around its tank like liquid flowing. It seems to want to interact with visitors who stop to admire it and who knows, maybe it does.

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Monterey Bay Aquarium Tickets

Thom Watson at Flickr under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License

Admission to the aquarium is by paid ticket only. Children under the age of three get in free, and they have discounts for seniors and students. Tickets expire one year from the purchase and are non-refundable.

Don't stand in line for them at the ticket office. Instead, order your Monterey Bay Aquarium tickets online or call 831-647-6886 or toll-free at 866-963-9645.

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). You can also participate in an aquarium sleepover.

Saving Money

If you plan to visit more than once per year, you will save money by buying an aquarium membership instead. Members get lots of extras, too. They can enter through the side entrance, avoiding lines. And they get a tax deduction, a monthly newsletter, invitations to members-only nights, previews of new exhibits, early and evening hours.

You can see all of the official discount programs at the aquarium website.

The only free admission days at the aquarium are for people who live in Monterey, Santa Cruz, or San Benito County and that's only once a year. Check the aquarium website for the date and find out about more locals-only offers that include discount admission and programs.

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Tips for Visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium

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

These tips will help you enjoy your visit to the fullest.

Timing is important, especially if you want to watch the animals being fed. Use the information above to find out feeding times and plan the rest of your visit around that.

The aquarium is a little harder to navigate than you might expect. Blame that on the fact that it's a former fish canning factory. Take a few minutes to study the maps and don't hesitate to ask questions if you feel lost or can't find something. 

Download their free app to learn more about the animals, plan your visit and even find some images to share with your friends. It also includes a map to help you get around.

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

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

If you want to eat while you're there, get all the details about dining at the aquarium. The restaurant has ocean views but can require a long wait. 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 Location

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is at 886 Cannery Row in Monterey at the west end of Cannery Row. You will find parking meters (some with as much as a four-hour limit) and also several paid parking lots nearby. The aquarium website has a good summary of them all.

During summer and major holidays, the area is very busy. If you have trouble finding a parking place nearby, try parking near a stop for the free MST trolley instead.

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