We're down in/around Monterey this weekend, and I want to post my first impressions of the new Splash Zone exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I know some of my multitudinous readers are fans of the aquarium, so this seems pertinent.
Normally I would avoid a tourist spot such as the aquarium on a holiday weekend, but last night was Members' Night, so we got to go in for a couple of evening hours without the crowding that accompanies holidays.
We hit some of our favorite spots first, to let the throng of children work its way into/through/out of Splash Zone, then headed over there.
First thing we noticed is that it's much bigger. Basically, the whole second floor on the old end of the building is now branded Splash Zone, incorporating the old Splash Zone and the part upstairs from the big kelp forest tank that used to be called the Kelp Lab, as I recall. Since we came over the walkway from the Outer Bay side, that's the part we saw first.
I like what they've done to the old kelp Lab. It's still focused on the kelp forest, but with several important upgrades. One is a HUGE touch pool. It's really long, and it has a big fish tank under it, so you can see rockfish and kelp, and then touch sea stars and such on a shelf above. Very nicely done, and able to accommodate many more investigators.
There is also a very nice kelp canopy tank, where you can walk under and get a feel for what it's like to be under the kelp. It's not quite like diving, but it's a good illustration.
And there are numerous tanks with kelp forest fishes, including some wonderful kelp fish (they look like kelp, really). The label claims there are spiny lobsters, but they were not in evidence last night.
One favorite for us was that one of the new kelp tanks has a very young, small black sea bass. We have always liked the two larger ones who live in the large tank in the Monterey Bay Habitats section, so it was a treat to see a really small one, less than a foot long, right up close. Black sea bass are huge but slow-growing fish. We have encountered sea bass that were easily 7-8 feet long in the Channel Islands off southern California. They're very inquisitive, beautiful fish, and it's fun to see them in the aquarium.
There are also some new interactive kelp forest things that I didn't get to go through. Ten we headed off to the other side, the previous home of the Splash Zone. Superficially, it seems much the same. Beautiful tropical fish tanks as you walk in, but you quickly notice some differences. To the left as you enter, they've got cuttlefish on display again (they used to be down by the octopi)! It's a much nicer habitat for them, with piles of rock and coral they can hide in.
The play and splash area seems unchanged, but I could have missed some nuance there. But as you go past it to the penguin habitat, you see where they've made big changes. The penguin habitat is considerably larger, with much more vertical structure for the penguins to climb and sit on, and much better visibility for visitors. It's not just a one-sided exhibit anymore. The window curves around and provides much more viewing area. The penguins weren't very active last evening, but the exhibit looks great.
Just beyond the penguins, next to the gift shop, there has always been a spot to look down into the big Monterey tank with all the large sharks (and the black sea bass). That's still true, but they've turned it into a resting spot for the common murres that also live there, so you can see and observe these fascinating sea birds much more closely than before. Also, the barrier here is now clear plastic instead of metal bars, so it's much more inviting.
Finally, as you head out of Splash Zone, the tank that used to have moon jellies now has leafy sea dragons. The lights were out last night, but it looks like a good, fairly quiet spot for them.
Overall, they've managed to keep the spirit of the Splash Zone quite well, while expanding it to make it feel less crowded, and probably less frustrating to people who just come up to see the penguins. It's good work!