Story by

Vanessa Bell

September 22nd, 2015

While driving the California coast along Highway 1, immersed in the beauty of our home state, I wondered if it could get any better. We stopped in Big Sur, only for a few hours, to play in a watering hole after filling our bellies at the Big Sur Lodge. That afternoon was magical, and I doubted it could be replicated.

Among the kids' most anticipated experience in Monterey Bay was its legendary aquarium. We had researched it on the Internet before starting our California road trip, and it looked amazing. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has been open for 30 years, and serves as a showcase for the habitats and sea life of one of the world's richest marine regions.

With more than 35,000 creatures representing over 550 species filling 34 major galleries, the aquarium promised our family an afternoon of wonder and learning. As soon as we entered, a live show depicting the area's history was beginning. I never knew how rich in culture and history this area of California was. From Native American to Asian influences, the area surrounding Monterey Bay Aquarium was once a flourishing economy based on, well, lots and lots of sardines. I'll admit, the show was not exactly my young kids' favorite, but I really loved how informative it was. It helped me appreciate the area that much more. (Don't worry about the kids though. Treasures abound and explorations await…)

My husband loved the clam-eating otters and the Open Sea experience with its massive, whale-filled aquarium, but it was the jellies exhibit that became our family favorite. It was truly spectacular, and we easily spent over an hour in this part of the aquarium. With an active three year old, that says something. The jelly experience showcases the lives of astounding animals we would otherwise never be able to learn from. Their colors were mesmerizing and their movements graceful. The kids learned that jellyfish don't have bones, brains, blood, teeth or fins, but are able to kill prey with the thousands of stinging cells that inject doses of toxins.

The Kelp Forest exhibit was stunning, and my daughter quickly recognized the kelp we see washed up on our local beach. We've spent many afternoons inspecting dried seaweed left behind by the current, and I was impressed that she made the connection. Filled with the imagination of a five-year-old, her eyes soaked in the beauty of the undersea life that lives not far from us.

For my son, the various touch pools and interactive features were by far the most amazing parts of our aquarium experience. He was enthralled with the ability to touch real life sea animals and plants. The volunteers at the touch pools came from all walks of life, and were each so pleasant and sweet with my curious son. He fell in love with hermit crabs and cried for them as we left the aquarium that day.

Ultimately, I think that's the beauty of the places like the Monterey Bay Aquarium: no two experiences are ever the same. We learned and saw so much on this adventure, and even after hours exploring the aquarium, we left feeling like we had only scratched the surface of all the treasures this beautiful building houses. We can't wait to go back.

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