By Dave G. Houser
I’m mesmerized. Standing in front of an underwater forest, I feel like I’m peering into the briny deep of Monterey Bay from a research sub.
Indeed, I’m getting a diver’s eye view of a kelp forest, dramatically contained within one of the largest such exhibits in the world, at Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.
Revealed through glass panels that rise nearly 30 feet, the 335,000-gallon Kelp Forest exhibit is alive with activity as a parade of fish pass by-flashing schools of sardines, sharks, eels, kelp bass, rockfish and others I don’t recognize. The long, tangled strands of kelp add to the action, dancing and waving in the surging currents, artificially stirred up by pumps to simulate actual bay conditions.
“The Kelp Forest is a living extension of the bay outside,” says aquarium spokesman, Ken Peterson, “so what you are seeing is an authentic recreation of one of nature’s most diverse ecosystems.”
I begin to see the kelp plants as subterranean condos-home to creatures large and small-from tiny crabs and urchins to robust rockfish and giant sea bass. Looming into sight now, in fact, is the exhibit’s largest resident, a sofa-sized 500-pound sea bass. Divers enter the forest at 11:30 a.m. and 4:00p.m. to feed all the critters and excitement rises when it comes time to serve the sharks. Don’t worry! They’re used to the routine-and no diver has ever been mistaken for a snack.
Overlooking the bay from historic Cannery Row as immortalized in the novels of John Steinbeck, the aquarium hosts some 35,000 creatures representing more than 550 species. Filling 34 galleries, with 200 exhibits in all, the aquarium is a showcase for the sea life and habitats of what is often described as the world’s richest marine sanctuary.
What makes Monterey Bay Aquarium stand out is that they’ve not only brought the ocean inside to the people–they have taken people outside to the ocean. With its “Outer Bay” galleries, MBA became the first scale. The million-gallon display reveals Pacific Bluefin tunas, rays, ocean sunfish, sea turtles and those fearsome great white sharks.
MBA not only places you eye-to-eye with a host of creatures but puts you within touch of marine life as well. Visitors are invited to fondle bat rays in the Bat Ray Pool and sea stars, chitons and abalone in the Ocean’s Edge Touch Pool. Guests also can stroll through an open-air shorebird aviary, and watch sea otters frolic just inches away in a two-story exhibit where the crowd-pleasing critters are on view both at the surface and underwater.
You’ll surely work up an appetite during your MBA visit and while Cannery Row is chock-ablock with trendy eateries, you can dine at the aquarium-with magnificent views of the bay-at either the casual Portola Cafe or the more upscale Portola Restaurant/bar.
The aquarium is open daily except Christmas Day. Hours: 10:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. Admission fees range from $21.95 to $34.95. Visit montereybayaquarium.org or call 800-840-4880 for general information and daily schedules. Nearest RV/trailer parking: City of Monterey Lot #21, located between Foam Street, Cannery Row and Reeside Avenue. Rates: $2 per hour; $10-$16 per day. Best choice for RV camping is Monterey Vacation RV Park in nearby Aromas, montereyvacationrvpark.com,
Just up the road in neighboring Oregon, Newport is home to one of the country’s finest and most popular aquariums, the Oregon Coast Aquarium. With thousands of marine creatures in view, ranging from sinister-looking sharks to loveable and always playful sea otters, OCA will hold your attention for hours.
Four indoor galleries showcase coastal habitats and the most extraordinary of them, Passages of the Deep, leads you through a 200-foot-long acrylic underwater tube-something of a tunnel beneath the sea. Outside, seals, sea lions and otters cavort in rocky saltwater pools. In North America’s largest walk-through seabird aviary, resident birds soar and dive, squabble, mate and feed to the delight of human observers.
As you will find at most top aquariums, there are well-supervised “touch tanks” at OCA, where you can get the feel of and even hold tide pool creatures-slugs, sea cucumbers, star fish and the likedrawn from natural tide pools at nearby Yaquina Head Lighthouse, on the north side of Newport.
The stately old 1873 lighthouse is definitely worth visiting, as is Newport’s picturesque harbor and Old Bay Front, a colorful and well preserved 19th century waterfront where you can settle in at Mo’s Restaurant for a platter of succulent local Dungeness crab and a bowl its “world famous” clam chowder.
OCA is open daily except December 25. Hours: May to September, 9:00 a.m.- 6:00 p.m.; September to May, 10:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. Admission fees range from $11.95 to $18.95. For more information, go to oregoncoastaquarium.org, or call 541-867-3474. Free RV parking is available on-site, or you can tie up your rig at Port of Newport Marina & RV Park, portofnewport.com, 541-867-3321, and walk to the aquarium.
Downtown Atlanta is full of fun for visitors—and perhaps the most surprising attraction on offer in this landlocked southern city is the Georgia Aquarium, opened in 2005 as the world’s largest aquarium. Housing more than 60 exhibits in 10 million gallons of water, it offers both entertainment and educational experiences for adults and children alike.
Dolphin Tales, a new bottlenose dolphin exhibit, is dedicated to building understanding between these playful animals and humans. Here you can interact with dolphins through a soaring underwater viewing window and hear little-known facts about them from trainers.
In the Ocean Voyager area, you can don snorkel or scuba gear to swim and dive with whale sharks and manta rays. In the Beluga & Friends exhibit, go hands-on by wading into the tanks in a wetsuit to touch gentle white Beluga whales.
Introduced in early 2012, Frogs—a Chorus of Colors, contains 15 species of frogs in a 3,000-square-foot assortment of natural habitats. Here you will see—eyeball to eyeball—how these colorful amphibians survive and thrive.
Many other exhibits await you, including a 4-D Theater featuring Deepo, the Aquarium’s mascot, who will take you on an animated undersea adventure starring characters like singing sea turtles!
When hunger strikes, try the onsite Café Aquaria or head for the Steamhouse Lounge, a family-friendly restaurant about one mile north on West Peachtree Street, for fried oysters and award-winning lobster bisque.
Located at 357 Luckie Street, the Georgia Aquarium is open 365 days a year. Hours: Sunday-Friday: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Tickets go for $23.95 to $29.95 and include shows. For more information, visit georgiaaquarium.org or call 404-581-4000. Atlanta’s MARTA transit system’s Peachtree Center Station is a short walk. Stone Mountain Park Campground is your best choice for full-service RV sites, stonemountainpark.com, 770-498-5710. A MARTA station is located nearby.
As the granddaddy of major U.S. aquariums, the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago opened in 1929. The Beaux Arts grandeur of its original building speaks not only to the golden age of American architecture but also to the scope of experiences you’ll find within its historic halls and adjoining tri-level Oceanarium wing, a later addition that effectively doubled the Shedd’s exhibit space.
The Oceanarium’s immense curved windows reveal awe-inspiring views of Lake Michigan and light up a far-reaching network of exhibits that literally recreate the world’s most important marine environments—from the reefs of Australia to the Amazon River— and, of course, the Great Lakes at its very doorstep.
Although most noted for its serious devotion to education and conservation, the Shedd offers its share of splashy entertainment with an aquatic show starring beluga whales and dolphins, and a Polar Play Zone where youngsters can suit up as penguins or cruise about in a kid-sized submarine.
You needn’t go hungry during your visit to the She’d thanks to three on-site eateries, the Bubble Net, Deep Ocean Café and Soundings Café, offering casual fare and quick snacks.
The Shedd Aquarium, located at 1200 South Lakeshore Drive, is open daily except Christmas. Hours: 9:00 a.m.- 6:00 p.m. spring/ summer; 9:00 a.m.-5:00p.m. fall/ winter. Admission passes vary in price from $19.95 to $34.95 based on your choice of exhibits and experiences. For more information, see sheddaquarium.org or call 312-939- 2438. Chicago Transit Authority’s bus #146 serves the aquarium campus. Day parking (9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.) is available for RVs at the Adler surface lot a block east of the aquarium with fees ranging from $25-$35. The nearest RV camping (April-October only) is 55 miles northwest at Chicago Northwest KOA Park, Union, Illinois, koa.com/campgrounds/chicago, 815-923-4206.
There could be no better location for the Baltimore National Aquarium than the city’s sparkling Inner Harbor. Opened in 1981 as part of an extensive urban renewal project, it faces the busy harbor that bustles year-round with tourists and locals—and is just a short walk from Camden Yards baseball stadium.
More than 16,000 animals, including sharks, birds, frogs, turtles, dolphins and jellies, await you here. Check out Shark Alley where many species of sharks circle around you in their ring-shaped tank. Visit Jellies Invasion for an up-close look at these prehistoric survivors and watch dolphins play, feed and train in Dolphin Discovery. Alive and constantly growing, National’s Atlantic Coral Reef is home to fish, eels, sharks and porcupinefish— all native to the nearby Atlantic Ocean.
Take time to pause and reflect a bit in the tranquil Upland Tropical Rain Forest, which houses plants, birds and other animals facing the danger of extinction. Quite popular too, in spite of a $5 extra admission fee, is the 15-minute digital HD production Planet Earth: Shallow Seas 4D Experience, which features the greatest gathering of seabirds and whales ever to be captured in digital HD.
Nourishment is readily available at the aquarium’s three on-site cafes—or you can stroll around the harbor front where restaurant choices abound.
Baltimore National Aquarium are Monday through Thursday 10:00 a.m.- 4:00 p.m., Friday 10:00 a.m.-8:00 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday 10:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. Tickets range from $20.95 to $29.95. For more information visit aqua. org/visit/baltimore/ or call 410- 576-3600. A nearby parking facility can accommodate RVs but you should call 410-347-9330 to check availability; day rate is $25 and an overnight for a self-contained rig is $60. Nearest RV campground is Bar Harbor RV Park, 4228 Birch Avenue, Abingdon, Maryland, barharborrvpark.com, 410-679-0880.