Monterey Bay Aquarium

Attractions — The Big Small

Monterey Bay California USA

Dorid nudibranch.
Photo courtesy Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is famous for major exhibitions featuring sea otters, squids, and jellyfish, but its smaller creatures are worth getting to know. Meet three obscure aquarium inhabitants who are making a big splash.

By Elizabeth Limbach

Ethereal, sunset-hued jellyfish drifting mesmerizingly in the current. Adorable sea otters intent on cracking clams open with a rock. Leopard sharks cruising through a towering kelp forest.

Such are the jaw-dropping displays that the Monterey Bay Aquarium is famous for. Understandably, these flagship animals are so striking that visitors tend to beeline for them, overlooking anything else in their path. But the venue has approximately 200 galleries and exhibitions, several of which include more obscure creatures that deserve a closer look, says Jim Covel, director of guest experience, training, and interpretation.

In fact, a well-kept secret of the aquarium is that its layout pairs each of the big, popular tanks with a smaller exhibition directly behind it; a peek inside is the equivalent of donning diving gear and exploring the nooks and crannies of the sea — something the average person will never do. “We want to take everybody on a dive in the Monterey Bay when they come to the Monterey Bay Aquarium,” Covel says. “It’s your underwater nature walk — and it’s a much more complete nature walk if you look in the small exhibits, as well as the big ones.”

Nudibranchs, for instance, are some of the most beautiful creatures in the aquarium yet go largely unnoticed because they are situated across from the penguin exhibition. A favorite subject for underwater photographers, these vibrant sea slugs are brightly colored and boldly patterned to warn predators of their defense mechanisms. “Nudibranchs … are scrumptious little morsels — no shells, no bones,” Covel says. “The kind of thing if you were a hungry fish you’d want to pop in your mouth.” Nudibranchs do a variety of things to make themselves less appetizing, like eat noxious food that makes them taste bad or take stinging cells from other animals and carry them on their backs.

Monterey Bay Aquarium

Sarcastic fringehead.
Photo courtesy Monterey Bay Aquarium

Another lesser-known resident of the aquarium is the sarcastic fringehead, a small, bizarre-looking fish whose gigantic noggin is topped with two bright, bulbous eyes and bordered on the bottom by a long, thick frown.

Look for this odd face poking out of empty barnacle shells or other good hiding spots in the Shale Rock display, the Reef Gallery, or the Junk Tank (where one sarcastic fringehead camped out for a while in an old shoe). Lucky visitors may witness what occurs when these otherwise mellow fish are provoked — suddenly pugnacious and frenetic, they fling open their jaw to unleash a gaping mouth bigger than their bodies.

“You’ll see two males going at each other with their mouths wide open, trying to impress each other with the size of their mouths,” Covel says, adding with a laugh, “and you can draw all kinds of parallels from that one.”

One of the sarcastic fringehead’s neighbors, both in the wild and in these exhibits, is a fist-sized clam called the wart-necked piddock. It spends its life burrowing into the rock, creating a tunnel as it goes. “They are so good at it that a lot of our shale here in the Monterey Bay starts to look like Swiss cheese after a while, it’s so chockfull of holes,” Covel says. From its hiding spot, it sends out a siphon that brings in water and plankton and filters out waste. Aquariumgoers can spot this clam by finding emerging siphons or by seeking out the part of the exhibition with a chunk of shale cut away to show the clams down in their burrows.

Another reason to take special notice of the wart-necked piddock and other small invertebrates that eat plankton is because you won’t find them at just any aquarium — the Monterey Bay Aquarium has a secret weapon. “During the day we filter the plankton out of the water so you can see everything,” Covel explains, “but as soon as we all go home at night and there’s no one to look at the fish, we bring in raw seawater, directly out of Monterey Bay, and our exhibits are bathed in that plankton-rich seawater all night long.”

These smaller and often-overlooked creatures may not be as flashy as sharks or as cute as otters, but they all play important roles in the marine ecosystem. The aquarium hopes that getting to know the full range of inhabitants bolsters a sense of stewardship among visitors. “The more time you spend looking at all that’s out there,” Covel says, “the more you realize what’s at stake in protecting the ocean.”

Monterey Bay Aquarium

Wart-necked piddock.
Photo courtesy Montery Bay Aquarium.

By the Numbers:
Monterey Bay Aquarium

35,000 animals and plants on display

550 species of fish, invertebrates, mammals, reptiles, birds, and plants housed in the aquarium

1.8 million average annual attendance

3,600 feet distance some jellyfish commute up and down in the water daily

1.2 million gallons of water in the aquarium’s largest exhibition, Open Sea

1st (and only) aquarium in the world to successfully exhibit and release great white sharks, to build a living kelp forest, and to reintroduce rescued sea otter pups to the wild using a surrogacy program

SOURCE: The Monterey Bay Aquarium