Monterey Bay Aquarium: Saving Oceans through Ecotourism and Activism

Kayaking above a California kelp forest, which hosts staggering biodiversity. © Hans Tammemagi

My heart began beating faster as a large, black shape swam toward my flimsy kayak, moving effortlessly in and out of the deep blue water. “It’s a sea lion,” said our guide nonchalantly. “They can weigh up to 1,500 pounds.” Her casual reassurance that these enormous beasts are generally harmless did little to slow my hammering heart. As the glistening mass passed within yards, what appeared so blubbery and uncoordinated on shore was now pure fluid poetry, in stark contrast to my clumsy paddling.

I was on a kayak tour on Monterey Bay, a 19-mile-wide bite out of the sunny California coastline. The initial excitement of paddling our kayaks through the shoreline surf turned to a soothing contentment as I floated among kelp beds, gently rising and falling with the swell—it was like being next to the heartbeat of Mother Earth. The sky was a pale blue and our kayaks were bright patches of red and yellow on the deep aquamarine of the water. Near us, a few sea otters were sleeping in the warmth of the sun, fuzzy balls curled up in kelp so they wouldn’t drift away. Black cormorants flew past, their beaks laden with large pieces of kelp to line their nests. A phalarope, a small delicate shorebird looking like a miniature Ichabod Crane, flittered on the kelp, spending as much time walking as flying. At a nearby pier, a favorite sea lion hangout, the air reverberated with raucous roaring and barking.

“Appearances are deceiving,” explained the guide, “for the abundance of marine life has diminished substantially since the 1950s.” The kayak ride, while captivating, highlighted my landlubber ignorance of the marine world and the complex issues it faces, so early next day I entered the Monterey Bay Aquarium—considered by many to be the best in North America and perhaps the entire world—to learn about the life that flourishes below the sea surface.

Established in 1984 in an old sardine canning factory on historic Cannery Row under the guidance and funding of David Packard of Hewlett Packard fame, the Aquarium offers dozens of fascinating exhibits. The focus is on Monterey Bay, one of the richest marine environments on the globe. My favorite display was the Kelp Forest, which towered over me like a cathedral, providing a window into the mysterious marine realm on which our kayaks had floated the day before. Sunlight filtered through the water onto 30-foot, golden-yellow kelp that swayed sensuously back and forth. Cruising and thriving among the tall kelp was an enormous variety of life, including leopard sharks, sardines, wolf-eels, rockfish, lingcod, sea urchins, starfish and abalone.

At another exhibit brilliantly colored jellyfish—the first swimmers in the ocean—pulsated in graceful slow-motion movement with long tentacles trailing behind like ghosts. It was a display worthy of an elegant art gallery. Sea otters, agile and fluid, played and hammed it up for a crowd of schoolchildren. Penguins, smartly arrayed in tuxedos, pressed against the glass as though trying to touch the human viewers.

A rich array of sea life is on display at Monterey Bay Aquarium. © Hans Tammemagi

Exhibit after exhibit unveiled the mysteries of Neptune’s kingdom. At the same time, the compelling message was delivered that oceans are a vital part of the planet. Oceans have spawned all life on Earth, including Homo sapiens. They regulate the climate and create the oxygen that makes life on land possible. Ninety-nine percent of all the “living space” on the planet, that is, where life occurs, is in the oceans.

Yet there were sad undertones. I learned that the endearing sea otters are on the endangered species list. Coral reefs, home to 25 percent of life in the sea, are rapidly being destroyed. Other exhibits illustrated how increasing human population causes pollution, overfishing and coastal developments, which are steadily eroding the health of the oceans.

Working Toward Solutions

In response, the Aquarium has gone beyond the standard mandate of illustrating and teaching about the sea, and also works passionately to protect the deep. Its simple mission statement—to inspire conservation of the oceans—drives everything the Aquarium does. There is a strong “save the oceans” message in all its programs, and it is proactive in its approach.

With 1.8 million visitors each year, 425 staff and more than 1,000 volunteers, the Aquariums’s eco-message reaches a large audience. This is significant, since the American public is the most profligate in the world.

Michael Sutton, director of the Aquarium’s Center for the Future of the Oceans, explained that the Center’s goal is to inspire and institute action and make real changes. “We’re at the cutting edge,” he said, “for traditional aquariums and zoos avoid activism.” Sutton described how the Center cooperates with key stakeholders and other activist organizations to lobby all three levels of government. “Sea otters, turtles and the other popular species we display in our Aquarium will not go extinct on our watch. That is our commitment,” he stated firmly.

Sutton led me into Portola Cafe, where only seafood from sustainable, environmentally friendly fishing is served. “The Aquarium’s responsible buying practices caught the public’s eye,” he explained, “and grew into “Seafood Watch,” one of our earliest and most successful programs. It helps consumers select seafood from well-managed fisheries and avoid those that are non-sustainable.” He explained how people once thought the oceans could supply an endless bounty of fish. Sadly, they were wrong. Today, most of the world’s fisheries are declining even as the human population, and thus demand, continues to increase. Enormous damage is being done by overfishing, especially by large refrigerated factory trawlers that deplete international waters with impunity. Their nets drag along the ocean bottom, catching many species besides the targeted ones while damaging plants and habitat.

The Seafood Watch program issues pocket guides listing which fish are sound choices, a website provides supporting information and an active partnership with other organizations informs the public and lobbies governments. Some of the largest buyers of seafood in the nation are beginning to pay attention. As chef Mo Tabib of Monterey’s popular Fish Hopper Restaurant says, “To stay in business, I need to find sources for seafood that are sustainable. Fortunately, the ocean is filled with plenty of good products without touching the threatened ones. Our customers really care about the environment, and we are happy to satisfy their concerns as well as their palates.”

Children are enthralled by a view of ocean life. © Hans Tammemagi

It is, of course, symbolic that the Aquarium is located in the former Hovden Cannery, once part of the busiest fishing port in California, if not the USA, which is described so colorfully in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. But after the Second World War, overfishing caused the sardines to disappear and the canneries closed. Other fish and sea mammals have also been severely depleted, and the overall fishery has decreased 70 percent in the past 20 years. Not only is the Aquarium striving to reverse this trend, but it is also replacing lost jobs. The Aquarium is an important part of the tourism industry and a recent study calculated its annual contribution to California’s economy at $110 million, about the same as the total state fish industry.

The Health of the Bay

Because oceans are difficult to govern and monitor, they are too often treated as dumping grounds. Many ports around the world are afloat with thick black oil, garbage and plastic. Even remote islands and seas are defiled by plastic, oil slicks and other flotsam.

The comparatively clean state of Monterey Bay, which I enjoyed while kayaking the previous day, is largely due to its designation in 1992 as a National Marine Sanctuary. The Aquarium’s lobbying was a key factor in this important decision.

One of the Aquarium’s objectives—to stimulate research into the complex ecosystem of Monterey Bay—has borne fruit. Today the bay has 16 marine research organizations including the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, founded in 1987 by the Packard family foundation. These institutes use cutting-edge technologies such as deep submersible craft and underwater sensors connected “live” to shore by fiber-optic cables. In tuna research, for example, individual fish are tracked via tags embedded with microprocessors to understand their migration habits.

The richness and complexity of marine life is caused by an enormous two-mile deep chasm just offshore that is so large the Grand Canyon could easily fit inside it. This canyon brings unusual denizens of the deep close to shore. It also upwells nutrient-rich, cool water that fertilizes phytoplankton, single-celled plants that form the food, directly or indirectly, for almost all the marine life in the Bay. The nutrients also support kelp forests that, just like tropical jungles, nurture amazing biodiversity.

“As we further our understanding of the oceans,” explains Sutton, “we also develop compassion and empathy. There is no motivation without knowledge; it is the precursor to conservation activism.”

Looking to the Future

Endangered sea otters play in Elkhorn Slough, Monterey Bay. © Hans Tammemagi

Environmental awareness starts from the top and permeates to every Aquarium employee. In 1999, the center’s board of trustees adopted an environmentally sensitive business practices policy. A comprehensive recycling program has been implemented. The Aquarium requires suppliers to be eco-friendly, and most cleaning materials and chemicals have been replaced by non-toxic products. Audits are conducted regularly to measure performance and to ensure continuous improvement. Water consumption, a vital issue in a water-starved state, has been reduced by four to five million gallons per year with the installation of a desalination plant that supplies flushing water for toilets.

In this age of global warming, the Aquarium is particularly proud of a program that minimizes the impact of transportation and conserves fossil fuel. Many incentives are offered. For example, staff use vanpools, receive free bus passes and pay reduced parking fees for carpooling. Bicycling and walking to work are encouraged. In peak season, the Aquarium subsidizes a community shuttle bus serving tourist areas.

As I walked out past the hulking cannery boilers near the Aquarium’s entrance, clutching a Seafood Watch guide, I resolved to get to know the oceans better and to help the Aquarium in its quest to save them.


Hans Tammemagi is a British Columbia-based environmental, science and travel writer, and author of such books as The Waste Crisis: Landfills, Incinerators, and the Search for a Sustainable Future (Oxford) and Exploring Niagara: The Complete Guide to Niagara Falls and Vicinity (Fitzhenry & Whiteside).