A cloudy California coastal morning gives way to blue skies and sunshine as the marine layer retreats into the vastness of the Pacific. The deck of the Monterey Bay Aquarium begins to fill with eager visitors searching for life in the Bay: otters, seals and sea lions, and, for the very lucky, dolphins or whales a bit further out. Aquarium staff offer binoculars and set up telescopes to focus on the ever-present sea otters in the kelp forest below.

The view from the deck features patches of kelp and incredible blue waters.

The sun shining on my face, binoculars to my eyes, I watch an otter for a few minutes, then a group of pelicans, and finally the Bay itself. It teems with life, though it wasn’t always the case. The efforts of the Aquarium and the city of Monterey itself have made certain that this most amazing place will still be here for generations.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is the most popular tourist attraction in the city, and rightly so. The exhibits aren’t as diverse as some aquariums, since the majority focus on local species, but each is fantastically well done. One of the centerpieces is the giant kelp forest, a huge tank featuring the local marine plants around which all Bay life exists. The kelp sway gently in a current mimicking waves, fish swimming around the stalks. It is unique, and has been in existence in some form here since the Aquarium opened in 1984.

The giant kelp forest tank.

As late morning approaches, a commotion ensues in the center of the building, and crowds form along a two story enclosure, a mixture of water and air. This is the sign that it is otter feeding time, one of the highlights of any visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Currently, there are four sea otters here, all females who would not successfully adapt to life back in the ocean. Trainers enter the exhibit and give the otters treats – clams, squid, and shrimp – for doing tasks necessary to make sure they are healthy. Once the crowds clear, the otters go back to doing what they are best at: floating on their backs, playing with toys, and generally being adorable. These are the mascots of Monterey, and for good reason. I sit and watch them for more than a half hour, smiling the whole time.

Otters are definitely the highlight of a visit!

The otter program here is truly remarkable. Started with the founding of the Aquarium in 1984, as of 2017, it had rehabilitated more than 800 sea otters, returning them to the wild to live successful lives. Starting in 2001, the females living at the Aquarium began to act as surrogate mothers for stranded pups; this remains the reason all residents are female. In addition, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has engaged in recognized conservation and breeding efforts for various shorebirds, African penguins, bluefin and yellowfin tuna, jellyfish, and more.

Don’t miss the amazing and varied jellies on exhibit! The Aquarium helped breed purple jellies, but these others are just hypnotic to watch.

In 1992, thanks to the Aquarium’s efforts, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary was established, becoming one of the country’s largest marine protected areas. Today, the Bay is home to whales and dolphins nearly year-round, as well as the other wonderful non-migratory creatures who call it home. Visitors are taught ways to appreciate the wildlife without impacting it, including cute advertisements about how and why not to approach otters.

Furthermore, the Monterey Bay Aquarium launched Seafood Watch in 1999 to promote the consumption of only sustainable seafood. I swing by the Deep Sea tank, full of tuna, sharks, sea turtles, and one awesome sunfish to pick up my updated wallet-sized brochures with lists of what I should and shouldn’t eat in order to be as sustainable as possible in my dining.

In the deep sea section, visitors can watch this school of mackerel.

This focus on sustainability extends to the entire city of Monterey. The Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau has created a full campaign around “Sustainable Moments,” encouraging tourists to visit in an ecologically sustainable manner. In fact, the destination itself has ranked at the top of US cities on the Global Destination Sustainability Index.

For the most part, we view eco-tourism as relegated to places like Central America or Africa, largely untouched by humans. It is refreshing to see that such things are also possible – and growing – here at home. So even when a true eco experience isn’t possible, the pioneering efforts of places like Monterey around sustainability tourism make for a nice midpoint between the culture of a city and the beauty of untouched nature.

My visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium ends in a hands-on experience: touch tanks. There are two here, one with bat rays which, when they get close enough, are shockingly soft, and one with the more traditional assortment of crabs, urchins, and sea cucumbers. All are staffed by knowledgeable volunteers encouraging visitors to – do you notice a pattern? – touch with an eye to sustainability of the creatures, gently with one or two fingers.

A visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium is not cheap – tickets run more than $40 – but I rest safe in the knowledge that my money is going toward such important work toward the sustainability of local marine life. And I feel glad that my visit to Monterey as a whole supports the goal of sustainability tourism.

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