The first aquarium of its kind in the country, the Monterey Bay Aquarium (886 Cannery Row, 831/648-4800, daily 9:30am-6pm, adults $40, seniors and students $35, children $25) is still unique in many ways. From the very beginning, the aquarium’s mission has been conservation, and they’re not shy about it. Many of the animals in the aquarium’s tanks were rescued, and those that survive may eventually be returned to the wild. All the exhibits you’ll see in this mammoth complex contain only local sea life.

A sea otter holds its paws up to its face.

A sea otter at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Derek Wolfgram, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

When you come to visit, a good first step is to look up the feeding schedules for the tanks you’re most interested in.The aquarium displays a dazzling array of species. When you come to visit, a good first step is to look up the feeding schedules for the tanks you’re most interested in. The critters always put on the best show at feeding time, and it’s smart to show up several minutes in advance of feeding to get a good spot near the glass. Check the website for current feeding times.

The living, breathing Kelp Forest is just like the kelp beds outside in the bay, except this one is 28 feet tall. Between the swaying strands of kelp, leopard sharks glide over the aquarium floor and warty sea cucumbers and starfish adorn rocks. Try to time your visit for the feeding times, when the fish in the tank put on quite a show.

The deep-water tank in the Open Sea exhibit area always draws a crowd. Inside its depths, hammerhead sharks and an enormous odd-looking sunfish coexist. The aquarium has even had one of the ocean’s most notorious predators in this tank: the great white shark. The aquarium has great whites infrequently, but if one is on display, it’s definitely worth looking at this sleek and amazing fish up close.

A striped orange and white nautilus at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Chambered nautilus on display in the special exhibit “Tentacles” at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. ©Monterey Bay Aquarium/Tyson V. Rininger

The Wild About Otters exhibit gives visitors a personal view of rescued otters. The adorable, furry marine mammals come right up to the glass to interact with curious children and enchanted adults. Another of the aquarium’s most popular exhibits is its Jellies display, which illuminates delicate crystal jellies and the comet-like lion’s mane jellyfish.

The aquarium is a wildly popular weekend destination. Especially in the summer, the crowds can be forbidding. Weekdays can be less crushing (though you’ll run into school groups during much of the year), and the off-season is almost always a better time to visit. The aquarium has facilities for wheelchair access to almost all exhibits.

map of Downtown Monterey

Downtown Monterey

Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon California Road Trip.