A few months before the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s October 1984 opening, Mary Barrett registered for the facility’s volunteer orientation classes. She’d grown up sailing on Lake Michigan and, after moving to the Monterey Peninsula, wanted to learn about the Bay in her new backyard.
As Aquarium co-founder Dr. Steve Webster presented concepts on an overhead projector, Barrett took detailed notes. Three decades later, she still has notes from those classes, and she continues as an aquarium volunteer. Her daughters, 27-year-old Kadee and 28-year-old Meghan, were student volunteers for 10 years before graduating from the adult volunteer program. Barrett’s mother, Jane Gorman O’Brien, also volunteered for more than 15 years before retiring from the aquarium in her early 90s.
“It’s really given us a strong, unique bond,” says Barrett. “I think that all volunteers will attest to this: Being part of a guide shift at the aquarium is like having a second family… These people become lifelong friends.”
As the Monterey Bay Aquarium celebrates 30 years in 2014, Barrett is among some of today’s 1,200 volunteers and 425 employees who have been there since the beginning. Four marine biologist friends originally envisioned the facility that currently houses more than 35,000 animals and plants and welcomes an average of 1.8 million guests annually. When the aquarium kicked off its anniversary celebration in February with free admission for Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito County residents, 31,285 locals visited in just seven days.
“I heard so many great stories from that week, including one about a 90-year-old-woman who lives in San Benito County and had never been here before. That was one of the goals of the free week,” says Aquarium Spokesperson Angela Hains. “It means a lot to us, to be able to thank the community that has supported us.”
In April, the aquarium opened an exhibit that promises to be this year’s most buzz-worthy birthday headliner. The $3.5 million “Tentacles: The Astounding Lives of Octopuses, Squid and Cuttlefishes” features two-dozen fanciful species in 12 live exhibits, plus interactive activities and an array of marine-inspired art.
Because the animals on display are mostly nocturnal, experience short life cycles and regularly camouflage themselves, designers faced unique challenges as they created display environments.
“They’re sensitive to light, so we’ve experimented with different lighting and different substrates at the bottom of the exhibits,” says Hains. In addition, she explains, designers developed special exhibit mechanisms–including custom bubble-making equipment crafted from empty soda bottles— and instituted a facility-wide no-flash policy for all galleries to keep animals comfortable.
Guests entering “Tentacles” start at a 1,900- gallon exhibit that introduces a school of vibrant Bigfin Reef squid, while rarely seen species such as the giant Pacific octopus, wunderpus, flamboyant cuttlefish and tiny northern pygmy squid rotate through other displays. From time to time, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute [MBARI] staff may bring in additional deep-sea octopuses and squid collected on expeditions.
Elsewhere, illustrations, sculptures, mosaics, models, prints and other artifacts explore the role of cephalopods in art and history. A dynamic multimedia exhibit demonstrates the quick navigational movements of the chambered nautilus; another explores how sea creatures use color-shifting abilities to communicate, hide and hunt.
Interactive exhibits, like the one that allows aquarium guests to create and upload cephalopod images to social media channels, have become increasingly popular in recent years. Expanded family and student programs also introduce new audiences to marine wonders. The Monterey Bay Aquarium offers free admission to 80,000 schoolchildren annually— that’s more two million students since 1984—and another 17,000 preschoolers have participated in the innovative Splash Zone/Head Start Discovery program. Young Women in Science and the Student Oceanography Club are among the teen programs that offer rich educational experiences. Sleepovers, tours and youth scuba outings organized under the Aquarium Adventures umbrella present exclusive exhibit access too.
Three decades after the aquarium opened, research and conservation efforts continue to shape outreach at all levels. The independent MBARI studies ocean life on the California coast. Sea otter, white shark and tuna research programs examine the needs of and threats to significant marine populations. Since 1999, pocket guides produced through the Seafood Watch initiative have helped millions of consumers, restaurants and distributors make smart, sustainable seafood choices.
That goal of inspiring ocean conservation remains as important today as it was 30 years ago. “Through education, our hope is that future generations will be able to share in the responsibility of taking care of Monterey Bay. Staff and volunteers also help visitors appreciate the wealth that’s right here,” says Barrett.