The Monterey Bay Aquarium, which attracts some 2 million visitors a year, is more than just a fun place to visit. Such is the impact of the Monterey Bay Aquarium in its 25 years that it has changed this area forever, and also affected ways of thinking about the oceans that will shape generations to come.
"The big message is of local impact and global reach," said Michael Hemp, area historian and president of the Cannery Row Foundation. "The aquarium was based on the philosophy of Ed Ricketts, who turned modern marine biology upside down in his dingy little laboratory on Cannery Row."
Ricketts, John Steinbeck's best friend and a unique thinker in his own right, was one of the first to explore the idea of marine ecology. His book, "Between Pacific Tides," put forth the concept of studying sea life according to habitat, and paying attention to interaction between species — a revolutionary concept when first published in 1939.
It was Ricketts' philosophy that inspired the founders of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, four marine biologist friends who got together after a diving trip and began discussing the idea of an aquarium based on the different habitats of the Monterey Bay, from deep ocean to sandy beaches.
The four — Steve Webster, Robin Burnett, Nancy Burnett and Charles Baxter — had all done work at Hopkins Marine Station. In 1976, they began talking about converting Monterey's defunct Hovden Cannery into a regional aquarium. Cannery Row had once been the home of Monterey's sardine canning industry, but overfishing ended their heyday.
"We wanted (the aquarium) to be a walk through the habitats, but it was to be much smaller and more modest than it turned out to be," said co-founder Webster, who served as education director of the aquarium for many years before retiring in 2004.
Nancy Burnett, daughter of Silicon Valley pioneer David Packard, got her father and mother, Lucile, interested in the project, and soon Nancy's sister Julie Packard joined in. Packard, who would become the aquarium's executive director, majored in marine algae studies at UC-anta Cruz.
Their approach would eventually change the way other public aquariums are organized. Aquariums used to be places for sea life to be displayed with no thought to how it corresponded to the region where the aquarium was located; now it is accepted practice to consider native habitats in the displays.
Webster remembers looking over the shoulders of the architects who were designing the aquarium, with changes coming fast and furiously in the beginning.
"The Packards would come down every week," he said, and their hands-on involvement would also mold the new aquarium. "The design was very fluid, very plastic. And it continued to evolve."
The Packards' gift of $55 million would cover initial construction costs, with the caveat that the nonprofit aquarium become self-sustaining by the time it opened in 1984.
There were plenty of people who said it couldn't be done. First off, naysayers declared that the aquarium couldn't possibly draw enough visitors. And others said the exhibits being planned wouldn't work.
The kelp forest, for instance, was considered not only impossible to do — few knew how to cultivate it then — but also was thought to be a display no one would be interested in seeing. Today, of course, it's one of the iconic vistas associated with the aquarium.
"We were all divers, and we all knew how spectacular (the kelp forest) was," said Webster. "But people were saying, 'Who wants to see a bunch of brown sea-weed?'"
The aquarium was the first to display jellyfish on a continual basis, something that took years of study of jellyfish lifecycles and specialized tanks. The aquarium has also been the pioneer in maintaining white sharks on long-term exhibit.
As for the numbers, it was estimated that 350,000 would visit in the first year.
The aquarium also would be instrumental in the development of Monterey as a tourist destination. Cannery Row is now a thriving area of restaurants, hotels and other attractions, paying homage to the legacy of Ricketts and Steinbeck.
These days, says Celeste White of the Monterey County Convention & Visitors Bureau, "The Monterey Bay Aquarium is the No. 1 motivator for people visiting the Monterey Peninsula, and because of that the hospitality industry benefits greatly. When leisure travelers are in Monterey to visit the aquarium, they also eat in our restaurants, stay in our lodging facilities and utilize our services."
And when visitors leave the aquarium, they take with them not just a souvenir or wonderful memories, but also some knowledge and awareness about preserving the world's oceans.
Executive director Julie Packard said the aquarium has become focused on helping people understand how fragile the oceans are, and the importance of taking care of them.
"When we started, we were focused on telling the stories of Monterey Bay ocean life; today, we're focused not only on inspiring people through our exhibits, but showing them how our lives affect the ocean in negative ways and what we can do about it," Packard notes.
In fact, an upcoming exhibit will examine the effects of climate change on a variety of species. "Hot Pink Flamingos: Stories of Hope in a Changing Sea," opening in March 2010, not only looks at flamingos but also penguins, turtles and other animals, and what's being done to address global warming.
The aquarium has also been instrumental in educating the public on a variety of issues, Packard said. "It's really picking up steam, and we've evolved from being strictly a visitor experience to having a broad reach across the nation and beyond," she said. "This work will continue into the future, as more and more people are getting involved in choosing sustainable seafood and promoting ocean conservation."
In a way, the original legacy has come full circle — "It's not ironic, it's synchronistic," is the way historian Hemp puts it. "Ed Ricketts would have approved."
Packard also points out that there is hope to be found in the story of Monterey Bay, which has cycled from the collapse of the sardine fisheries to a thriving ecosystem that supports ocean wildlife and fishing.
"Like all parts of the ocean, our bay is not immune from human impact, from pollution to global climate change," she said. "The oceans have sustained us for centuries; it's time we return the favor."
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is open every day but Christmas, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. For ticket information, see www.montereybayaquarium.org or call 648-4800.
Learn more about the Monterey Bay area at MontereyBayAdventures.com.