Day 11: Otterly Fascinating
By Matthew Pedone
October 27th, 2014
Breakfast starts similarly - coffee, cereal, toast. Options today are eggs or chocolate chip strawberry crepes. I opt for the crepes. Sarah does too, not realizing the strawberries would be stuffed inside the crepes. She tries a couple of bites, then decides to stick with banana bread. I eat all four crepes, because I don't want the chef to feel bad - they are delicious.
We drive to a municipal parking garage near Cannery Row, and walk over to the Aquarium. Cannery Row is interesting, reminiscent of Pier 39 and Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, but a little less touristy. Well, there is a Bubba Gump Shrimp Co restaurant, so maybe not. It's more open, though, and less crowded while we're there, so it's got that going for it.
It also has the Monterey Bay Aquarium at one end, so that's awesome, too.
I've never been a fan of fish tanks, and though I've always enjoyed trips to the New England Aquarium, ever since I've been on my own financially, I've never considered it worth the money. I've heard great things about this aquarium, though, so I'm excited to go.
The Aquarium is set up in two wings, with the main entrance (as well as the gift shop and cafeteria) in the middle. To the left is the near sea exhibits – the kelp forest, some other local habitats, and the touch pools. To the right is the open sea and special exhibition area. Right in between them is a two-story tank. We get in right when the doors open at 10am, and make a beeline for the tank right in the middle. This tank is one of the highlights according to others who have been - it's the sea otter tank.
Two-story windows, with underwater viewing on the lower level, and surface viewing on the second make up the tank. Right as we approach the windows, one of the three otters, as if on cue, swims down and does a little spin right in front of us. We walk around the tank, watching the otter dive and play, then head upstairs and watch them swim on the surface. As I noted in yesterday’s entry, I know of otters, but not much about them. I know they ate clams and other shellfish, cracking them open on rocks and such. Seeing them in the tank opened my eyes.
They are adorable and playful, and smart. When they see people come up to the windows, they swim over and mug for photos. Their first feeding is at 10:30, so we park near one of the windows, and decide to wait. We can tell it's getting close to feeding time, as the otters start scooping up discarded toys from the bottom of the tank and trying to get inside them. It turns out, they are fed initially in these toys, as a way of training them.
We discover this, as the first things the feeders toss into the tank are three brand new chew toys. One of the otters (Rosa, I think) grabs one, swims over to the window in front of us, and starts banging it against the glass. Eventually, she gets the food out, and munches away. The otters are well trained, swimming back to the trainers for more food, performing certain tasks when asked, and generally just being cute.
After this, we move on to the open sea exhibit at the suggestion of one of the volunteers, to see the Open Sea feeding. The entrance is a round tank with sardines swimming in circles. We get there just in time to see them being fed. They all crowd up to the top of the tank when they sense the vibrations of the feeder's footsteps walking up to the tank, and as the krill is poured in, all orderly swimming ceases, and the little silvery fish swarm the cloud of food. After a few moments, the swarm breaks up into two schools moving in opposite directions. When they meet, they clash for a bit, then one direction wins out.
Next, we walk through the jellyfish section, featuring dim lighting, mellow music, and tanks full of floating, blobs of jelly. We zip through to get to the big tank, as feeding starts around 11:00.
The big tank is just that – a big tank. “Big” doesn’t really do it justice, though. The tank is designed to be large enough to give the creatures swimming inside the illusion of swimming in the open sea. For visitors, the presentation is astounding - a giant window, two stories tall, 90 feet wide. Tuna and turtles and dolphin fish swim in the murky waters behind it. The tank itself stretches well past this window on all sides: left, right, above, and below.
Today, the "bubble curtain" is on. They use it at night to help the fish recognize that the large opening isn’t, in fact more tank. It's a continuous stream of air bubbles, with jets every foot or so along the bottom of the window. On a normal day, the people standing in front of the window are enough to key the animals into the fact that they can’t swim that way, but some new fish have been added to the tank overnight, and so they need the curtain.
The effect is that - even as we sit in the balcony above - you feel like you are sinking into the ocean, which is cool, even with the sharks. Oh yes, there are sharks in the tank. Two hammerheads and a sandbar shark. They're not big, but I wouldn't mess with them.
There is also a large school of sardines. The tank at the entrance held about 200. In this tank there are about 15,000. It is cool to watch them swim - always in formation. When the krill is dropped, they start to come up to get it, but are wary of the sharks and the other fish in the tank, who might also eat them. Eventually, though, they do swarm their food, but with more space to move, they keep formation better. It is amazing to watch, like something you'd see in CG in a film. They move almost as one, keeping formation to look like a big animal to larger predators.
The morning feeding. The video is a little jittery, but it's a great example of both the bubble wall and the sardines.
Another great feature of the aquarium is its location right on Monterey Bay. They take advantage of this by having numerous decks off the back of the building, with many telescopes (free!) to spot sea life in the bay. Throughout the day, we wander back here to look at egrets and pelicans, some sea lions, and a sea otter just chillin' on a kelp patch, completely unfazed by the kayaker taking pictures of him.
We cross the aquarium to do the second floor of the near sea building next. Many of the exhibits up here are geared more towards kids, but we enjoy the touch pools. Upstairs from here is more observation, and also the top of the kelp forest pool. We check out the large, two-story kelp forest tank, featuring a bunch of fish, including another school of sardines. Sardines are big in the Monterey Bay area. Cannery Row is not just a name pulled out of a hat. Well, it’s actually pulled from a Steinbeck novel, but it refers to the sardine canneries that operated along Ocean Avenue in the first half of the 20th Century. The aquarium itself sits on the site of the Hovden Cannery, opened in 1926, and still maintains some of the original building. In the 50s, though, the rapacious overfishing (not to mention over-hunting of otters and other creatures) depleted the sardine stock and the fishing industry collapsed. The good news here is that in the 70s, after Hovden Cannery finally closed its doors (having subsisted another 20 years by canning squid), and a visionary group seized the moment to create the Aquarium, which opened in 1984 and led massive conservation efforts that saw a return of otters, sea lions, sardines, all of which helped maintain the vital kelp forest.
The Blue Angels are impressive, but they only have four planes. Sardines do this in schools of thousands.
Back downstairs, we decide to pop into the aquarium café for some lunch. We grab grilled cheese and tomato soup and eat overlooking the bay, gazing out at the birds and otters floating in the dark blue waters, the rocky shoreline wrapping around the bay, the tops of the long strands of kelp rising from the bay floor. Oh, and a couple trying to get to second base right in front of the windows. Sarah and I tend to be relatively affectionate in public, and even we're embarrassed!
After lunch, we head upstairs and cross a bridge back into the deep sea building, then take a staircase down to the special exhibits - The Jellies Experience, Save the Fish, and Tentacles.
The Jellies Experience is an exhibit all about jellyfish, featuring 1960's styling and music. It's definitely "groovy". And just a little "far out, man".
The save the fish exhibit is about sharks, sea turtles, and tuna, and stresses the importance of sustainable fishing and regulations to protect the populations of these animals. It is mostly stuff that I am aware of, but it is sad and infuriating nonetheless. It makes me think of Scott Brown arguing for easing restrictions on fishermen in Mass, because they weren't able to make as much money. Pretty sure there weren’t many restrictions on the fishermen in this area when the canneries were booming – people made some good money, but when the fish disappeared, so did the money.
Is there anything more cliche than a steampunk octopus? Cliche means "awesome", right? ("Top Heavy Sora" by Nozomu Shibata)
On a lighter note, “Tentacles” is pretty awesome. It's all about squid, cuttlefish, nautiluses, and octopuses. The octopuses are the stars of the exhibit. The rest are cool, but there’s something fascinating about the octopus. It looks weird, but is intelligent, dexterous, and just cool looking (yes, I know I just called it weird - I evolved). The way they move is just awesome, stretching out those tentacles, feeling their way across the seascape, or adhering themselves to the glass and making their way across it.
From here, we head up and down again, stop by the otter tank (seriously, awesome placement of the tank – pretty much anywhere you go in the aquarium, you go by the otters), and head over to the final area for us to visit, the lower level of the near sea exhibits. We get to the kelp forest as the 4:00 feeding show is wrapping up. This feeding features a diver in the tank chatting with a worker in front of the tank, and telling the audience what is going on. We don’t see much of the show, but we do sit on the benches in the back of the area, and watch as the diver high fives kids through the glass and poses for pictures with them. At one point, he photobombs a young couple’s photo.
We move on to the other exhibits, looking at more octopuses (one sleeping (even that is cool, as they basically hang on the glass), one very active), other fish and plants. In the touch tank area, they have a tank of bat rays that you can reach in and touch. After watching them for a bit, and seeing others reach in, I finally dunk my hand in and run my fingers down the back of a ray. It’s slightly firm, and quite slick. Sarah is the squeamish one this time, not wanting to touch a creature that is actively swimming, as opposed to the starfish and sea cucumbers that are passive. Eventually, with the help of the signs at the edge of the tank claiming these rays are neither electric nor aggressive, I convince her to roll up her sleeve and reach in. It takes a few tries, as she is wearing long sleeves and the tank is deep, but she finally touches one, and agrees with my that it is slightly firm, quite slick, and really, not all that bad.
We check out the other touch tank, and learn that the insides of abalone shells are beautiful and full of colors, but also not. There is no color to the inside of abalone shells, but the way the light refracts off the translucent layers of shell makes it look like there are. In an open-air area, there are tanks with more rays and flounders, as well as other fish, and a good amount of “beach” for birds that live in those sorts of habitats. These birds include plovers, who we learn hunt by swimming in tight circles above a fish, creating a small vortex that pulls it up to the surface where the plover can just pluck it out of the water.
Back inside, we go through a walkway made up of those curved sunroom windows. Every 30 seconds or so, gallons of water are dumped onto the top of the windows, recreating what it’s like to be inside a wave crashing on the shore. In this last area of the aquarium, we learn that fish adjust their swimming automatically to compensate for the changing currents. There’s a cool little display in which you can alter the current and watch the little fish change direction, almost immediately. The write-up explains that sometimes the current and turbulence can overwhelm the fish, disorienting them or even carrying them along. This seems to lend credence to our theory about the harbor seal yesterday.
It's just like the waves we have in the northeast. Just a little more intense.
Sarah and I keep our streak alive by closing down yet another museum (this goes all the way back to our very first date), and cap off the day with a trip through the gift shop. We check out the various stuffed otters they have, and I look at a couple of t-shirts, but we decide not to buy anything (yet).
Outside, as night is falling, the weather is getting a little cooler, so we decide to head back to the car to get warmer clothes. Once there, we decide to take a moment to look into what to do for dinner. Our initial idea had been to go to the Cannery Row Brewing Company for dinner, thinking something a little more casual, and perhaps with some locally-brewed beers might be nice. Looking it up, though, we find that it is not a brewery, and doesn’t even have much in the way of a beer list. Basically a touristy bar. Searching for more options, we find places that are more up-scale, meaning we’d have to head back to the inn and change. Most of the casual places are on Cannery Row, and are either touristy (so we don’t even bother) or middle-of-the-road per Yelp. We eventually decide on a little Italian place on the way back to the inn, called Il Vecchio.
We head there without a reservation, and get a table immediately. The menu on Monday’s is a little different than the rest of the week. On Mondays, they do small plate versions of favorite dishes, $6 each, a minimum of 3 plates per diner, one each from Appetizers, Pasta, and Mains. At first, we’re a little bummed that the burata appetizer we’d seen on the online menu isn’t on the Monday menu, but we’re excited to hear it listed as a special. Sarah gets some wine, I get a Big Sur Golden Lager and am informed it’s the only truly local microbrew available in the area.
We get the burata and a salumi plate. Both are tasty. The burata plate is basically a free-form caprese, as the cheese is served with tomato, olive oil, basil, and toasted bread. The bread is a little hard, and the entire dish needs a hit of salt, but is otherwise good. The salumi plate is thin slices of pepperoni, prosciutto, and some other cured meat, with shaved parmesan, slices of provolone, and a hunk of gorgonzola. I’m not a huge fan of gorgonzola (it reminds me of bleu cheese, which I like in small doses), but it is good with the meat.
For pasta, Sarah gets the penne with pesto. I get the rigatoni with a meat ragu. Both are delicious. The pesto has a great basil flavor, and the tender meats in the ragu give it an incredible richness. For main courses, we get the meatballs and chicken thigh cutlets. I love chicken thighs, and these are nicely breaded and fried. The meatballs are a little dry, but that is just the way meatballs are cooked. They have a good flavor. We get a chocolate torte for dessert, and it is good and chocolaty.
Tasty food, a casual atmosphere, and a local beer – exactly what we’d wanted for the evening meal.
Back at the inn, we catch the end of Bumgarner’s masterpiece complete game shutout win for the Giants. They could win the series tomorrow night, while we’re still in town. That could be cool.