Quality fish viewing without getting wet.
Visits to the Monterey Bay and Oregon Coast Aquariums

I'll go out of my way to look at fish. I don't like boats much, but I'll get on one to go look at fish. I see boats mainly as a tool for fish viewing. I don't much like crowds either, but for fish, I will stand in line at the ticket window and patiently wait to get close to the tank at an aquarium. Aquariums offer a couple of benefits over boats too - you never get seasick, you stay warm and dry, and there are extensive educational opportunities. Yes, I will drive hundreds of miles to visit two gorgeous aquariums on one trip. I understand that you might not have that kind of time, but both locations have such unique offerings that it was worth it to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Oregon Coast Aquarium on the same trip. Plus, at an aquarium, you get to look at fish. I just love looking at fish.

So it turns out that if an octopus sticks an arm out and feels that it's dry outside, he'll think the tide is out and head that direction looking for a bite to eat. This is why all the holding tanks for octopi at the Oregon Coast Aquarium are easily distinguishable by their bolted or weighted down lids. Some of them even have carpet stapled around the outside. When that hungry octopus reaches out and hits carpet, his suckers can't get any grip and eventually he gives up. This is one of the many things you can learn if you take the behind the scenes tour, an addition to the tours available at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Tours last about 90 minutes, with a maximum of 20 people and they are well worth it. (Yes, you can change your mind once you've paid the regular admission and buy a ticket for the tour.) Being a writer, I usually have a number of adjectives at my disposal, but as we wandered past divers preparing to enter the shark tank and through the food prep kitchen and past the holding tanks, again, all I could come up with was, "Cool. This is SO cool!"

There's more coolness out front, of course. The Enchantments of the Sea exhibit again found me fishing for adjectives at the first tank. Home to two types of sea dragon, the leafy and the weedy, these cousins to seahorses and sea pipes make you wonder what other undiscovered magical creatures have evaded your eyes. You can see the similarity to sea horses as soon as you realize you're looking at an animal, not a plant, one type with a kelp colored speckled - well, foliage is the best word - and the other ornately dressed in pale delicate leaves. While we stood there, goggle-eyed, other aquarium visitors went through the same phases of recognition as we had. They'd walk up, eye the kelp, look at the sea dragons, and slowly, slowly, they'd realize that they were seeing not another plant but an animal. "Oh my. Oh my. That is so COOL!" See? No decent adjectives available.

If that doesn't make you drop what you're doing and head out to the coast, there's another stunner out at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Keiko's former home (you may remember Keiko from the movie "Free Willy") has been transformed in to a series of walk through tanks that reproduce successively deeper ocean environments. You can look down through the floor as fish swim below your feet or up as sharks and rays pass above you. It's a great feeling, even if you've done the real thing and gone diving. And kids love it, of course.

Speaking of kids, the Oregon Coast Aquarium welcomes them whole-heartedly with not only the usual touch pools, but programs designed especially for them. Want a night to yourself while visiting the Oregon coast? The aquarium hosts "Shark Sleepover" - overnight educational programs where the kids spend the night in the event room that faces in to the biggest of the walk through tanks. The event room is available for other things too - if, for example, you'd like to have your wedding while sharks swim behind you, the aquarium is happy to rent you the room.

Many miles down the coast is the Monterey Bay Aquarium which offers spectacles of its own. The aquarium's current showpiece is the "Art of the Jellyfish", an installation that combines gorgeous specimens in spectacularly lit tanks with jellyfish inspired works of art. The wall tanks are surrounded with heavy picture-style frames, making you appreciate the beauty of the jellies as well as of the art they're displayed with. Works by glass artist Dale Chihuly, illustrator Ray Troll, biologist Ernst Haekel, and many more are displayed beside the surreal life forms in the tank to transform the aquarium in to a gallery. The translucent moon jellies, the comb jellies with a string of lights along their ribs that remind one of nothing so much as Christmas lights, and the flowered hat jelly that looks like your best beaded going-to-church-on-Sunday-hat; they're all works of living art in their own right. It's an inspiring and sensitive display that invites you to take your time enjoying the amazing creatures that nature presents and how they inspire the artists amongst us.

Upstairs in the Monterey Bay Aquarium is a less cerebral and certainly less quiet sort of display. The Splash Zone is home to brightly colored tropical reef fish and a play area for the kids. Also here are a favorite of all the young at heart, the penguins. You can watch them strut about above ground in their formal wear or you can see them shed their awkward demeanor and swim like masters below the surface of the water. A small person can dress up like the fish of their choice and run in and out of a kid-sized reef play area. (I was too big to get in the clownfish outfit, but I tried.)

In a vaguely cannibalistic twist, I like eating fish nearly as much as I like looking at them. It turns out that a person can make choices about the fish they like to eat that have direct impact on the fish a person likes to look at. Simply said, what you eat matters to the environment. You can learn all about this in Vanishing Wildlife, an exhibit designed to give you a feeling of how the ocean environment is connected to our lives here on shore. Pick up the quiz card at the entrance to Vanishing Wildlife and see how much you've learned as you walk through. If you want to translate what you've learned in to action, take home a wallet-sized card that tells you what seafood is environmentally sound for your dinner, and why.

Speaking of food, there's a great restaurant at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Portola Café. The full service restaurant offers classy dining with a view - they even provide loaner binoculars for use during your meal. We used the self service side and after eyeing many delicious looking selections, chose to share a generously sized chicken and pesto sandwich. The more formal entrées were stunning to look at; I imagine they were just as tasty. It's worth planning to have your lunch there during your visit. We were able to get a table by the window and watched the sea lions sun themselves on the rocks of the bay while we ate.

After spending the better part of the day at the Aquarium, we headed up to Point Lobos State Reserve to see some of the marine life in its natural habitat. We saw sea lions on the rocks off shore, starfish and crabs in the tidepools, and, from the under the boughs of the Monterey Cypress trees, we looked in to the water where moon jellyfish were gracefully swaying in the tide. Naturally, we had fish and chips for dinner that night.

Notes For Visitors:

If you plan to visit either facility, try to get there early in the morning. On both of our visits we arrived exactly at opening hours. We were able to stand at the tanks for as long as we wanted to without blocking other visitors or having to wait for them to move on. It's a lot easier to take pictures when the crowds are a little thinner too.

There is plenty of staff at each facility if you've got questions about the plants and animals, but they are a bit harder to find in the mid-day crowds. Monterey is busy year-around, with peak season in summer, as you'd expect. Newport is a bit quieter off-season and since the weather can be quite unpredictable at the Oregon Coast, you might find yourself pleasantly surprised by a sunny spring-like day at any time of year. We visited in July and wore long pants and sweatshirts; so don't expect that summer will guarantee you sunshine. This is true for Newport and Monterey. Feeding times are posted at prominent locations at both aquariums - you may wish to plan your day around the animal's mealtimes rather than your own.

Let's Visit Oregon Coast AquariumMonterey is a busy tourist location. If you plan to stay overnight, you should make reservations in advance. The aquarium is smack in the middle of historic Cannery Row - plan to pay for parking, it's a lot less trouble that way. Newport is a little less crowded - we arrived without reservations and had little trouble finding a mid-range hotel. - By Pam Mandel, Seattle Correspondent.

I sat on my surfboard serenely rolling on the bluish-green sea, thinking only about the perfect wave. I didn't seem to realize that from about 20 feet below the surface I was being watched by one of the world's most powerful creatures. Eyeballing me from the darkness below, the Sand tiger shark moves in as it contemplates whether or not I look like a tasty fish to sink its three layers of razor sharp teeth into.

Separated by glass six inches thick, the Sand Tiger Shark stares at me as though it can see the horror I've allowed myself to feel from letting my imagination run amuck. Partially, I sympathize with the poor thing, swimming around in circles aimlessly for the rest of its given life. On the other hand, I consider myself fortunate to be less than a foot from its face, staring deep into its mysterious eyes at the Shark Lagoon exhibit at the Aquarium of the Pacific, in Long Beach, California.

The Aquarium of the Pacific is one of the largest aquariums in the United States. Its 550 species fill 17 major habitats, 31 focus exhibits, and takes visitors on a journey throughout the Pacific Ocean's three regions: Southern California/Baja; the Tropical Pacific and the Northern Pacific.

The Shark Lagoon has about 150 sharks you can touch...and some you can't. It includes an expansive exhibit with large sharks and rays, shark touch pools, interactive displays, a theater, the Shark Shack gift store and the Bamboo Bistro outdoor café. Moving around the exhibit I'm enraptured by a Zebra Shark, appropriately named from the stripes on its skin. As it swims past me, my vision is warped from the odd angle of the glass. Stubbornly, I fight the refraction of my lens and follow it behind a rock, questioning which of us is more afraid.

Narrowly escaping a headache, I decided to focus on some things in a natural light, so I headed outside. I ended up at the Lorikeet Forest, a fabricated mesh enclosure filled with an overwhelming flood of chirps and a sprinkle of thick white excrement rain. Surrounded by colorful feathers and quick-jutted neck movements, the first thing that entered my head was - I should have brought my umbrella.

I walked down a winding path dotted with tall trees and extending branches lined with this rare bird. They seemed to be very friendly; nibbling food out of a boy's hand didn't seem to bother them. The Lorikeet presented a dazzling color combination, ranging from brilliant blues and greens to exquisite reds and yellows and deep purples. In full sunlight, they almost radiated an iridescent glow - a bright contrast to the thick, dark trees of their natural habitat in Australia.

According to one of the caretakers - who sported two birds on her shoulder, one on her head, and one feeding from her hand on pebbles of birdseed -Lorikeets spend approximately 70% of their time feeding throughout the day. They can feed on 30-40 Eucalyptus flowers per minute - that's approximately 680 flowers a day. On a disgusting note, that results in an apparent two poops per minute. And as far as I'm concerned, that's reason enough to sell umbrellas in the gift shop.

Not far from the Lorikeet Forrest is quite possibly the most unusual living creature I've seen. Resembling a watery blob of guts, the live jellies, better known as jellyfish, are given the title "phantoms of the deep". It's hard to believe that these creatures have survived for 650 million years without hearts or brains.

Usually when we think of jellyfish, we think of invisible blobs with stingers, and this isn't far from the truth. Because they are 95% water, jellyfish are pretty tough to see. Their soft and fragile bodies are protected by their stingers. When a jellyfish stings you, one of its tentacles releases thousands of stinging cells which involuntarily explode, launching barbs into your skin. And of course our reaction is "fight or flight". Let it be known that if you decide to stay and have it out with the jellyfish, it can still sting long after its death - a good reason to leave it be.

As I took a few steps back, I noticed that the people around me had a certain expression on their face. Their faces were sort of scrunched back as though they had just tasted sour milk, but their eyebrows were raised to make room for curious eyeballs that focused in on the thick slimy blob as it pulsated throughout the tank. There almost was a peacefulness about them. Like heartbeats they would pulse upwards and sideways, then they would slowly drift back down and start again. I remember thinking about how ironic it was that something that could be so weird could be so calming and serene.

The Aquarium of the Pacific is a window into the life of just a few of the mysterious creatures that live in the depths of our imaginations and oceans.. The best way I can put it is like this: imagine one of those aquariums you see in a pet store. Think about how amused it makes you to see little fish swimming around the little bubbles in the tank. Now imagine an aquarium that's about fifty-thousand times larger filled with creatures you didn't even know existed. It sort of puts things into perspective.

By Josh Edelson, San Diego Correspondent.