Weaved into the city’s history and directly connected to the bay that it strives to protect, David Morgan discovers why Monterey Aquarium is more than just a tourist attraction...

THE sea is as near as we come to another world.

Those are the words of American-British poet and writer Anne Stevenson which are backlit into the wall at Monterey Bay Aquarium.

And if that is the case then a visit to the Californian city might as well be a trip to space.

For the coastal holiday spot – immortalised by novelist John Steinbeck and currently in the spotlight as the location for HBO’s Big Little Lies – is all about life by the sea.

Whale watching trips launch daily from multiple operators at Fisherman’s Wharf where you can view the likes of humpback whales, blues whales, killer whales and dolphins.

You can also get a bite to eat from the fresh catch (Big Little Lies fans can go to Paluca Trattoria which doubles as the coffee shop in the drama) as you explore the pier or watch seals and sea lions jostle for space on the rocks.

Over at the world-renowned aquarium, the sea is weaved into the history of the attraction.

It was built on the site of the former Hovden Cannery, once a bustling centre of industry as part of Cannery Row in the 1930s and 40s.

At the height of the sardine-fishing boom, 250,000 tonnes of fish were processed there each year then suddenly the fish disappeared.

In five years the catch fell by 90 per cent with Hovden Cannery closing in 1973.

Cannery Row became a ghost town but just four years later a group of marine scientists and residents devised their plans for a $55million aquarium which opened in 1984, funded by David and Lucile Packard.

You can learn about the building’s history as you enter the aquarium and, fast-forward 35 years, it is hard to imagine Cannery Row as anything but a vibrant part of the city.

Sardines are back in the building forming a stream of silver in many of the tanks – and more importantly they are back in the bay.

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And that is all part of the ethos of the non-profit aquarium whose mission is to ‘inspire conservation of the ocean’.

It is not just words either. It has won numerous awards for its exhibition of marine life, ocean conservation work and educational programmes on the likes of sustainable fishing.

None of this rich context will, of course, interest your kids and that is fine because Monterey Bay Aquarium is brilliantly designed for little explorers.

Set aside at least four hours because there is a lot to see and do over two floors.

A good way to plan your day is to structure it around the feeding sessions/talks which are informative and fun.

My son particularly enjoyed the penguin feeding in the fully glass-fronted enclosure where children can sit and watch the ‘show’ as the flightless birds bombed through the water to catch their food.

The talk at the ‘Open Sea’ was also truly a marvel where you can watch the likes of green sea turtles, ocean sunfish and pelagic stingrays through a 90ft window.

And there was something quite magical about watching a hammerhead shark swim casually along the path of a swarm of sardines.

The talks were among the best I have seen at any aquarium or zoo because they have that all-American charm to them.

Often they have to two different people talking and sharing facts about the animals and asking questions to each other – giving the same sort of back and forth that you get on a news report. It worked really well.

My five-year-old also really enjoyed the touch pools where hermit crabs crawled over his fingers and he could touch the likes of starfish while a member of team talked about each creature.

Going back to the ‘out-of-this-world’ theme, a darkened room with illuminated tanks made brightly coloured, pulsing jellyfish and sprightly cuttlefish look like space aliens, adding to the sense of wonder.

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Just around the corner were octopuses with interactive displays and videos so you can learn more about the creatures of the deep.

Also not to be missed is the kelp forest. Filtered seawater from Monterey Bay is pumped into the 28ft-high exhibit to create the first successful living kelp forest in an artificial setting.

Containing species indigenous to Monterey Bay, including rockfishes and leopard sharks, you will not see anything else quite like it.

Elsewhere there is a viewing platform where you can look out across the bay and again see the direct connection between the aquarium and the sea life it aims to protect.

We visited Monterey as part of a visit to San Francisco and although the two cities are a couple of hours’ drive apart it really is worth it if you get the chance.

A change of pace to the hustle and bustle of San Francisco, Monterey Bay has a more relaxed vibe and from the salty air to the cuisine to the wealth of tourist activities, the sea and its many inhabitants is the central part of that experience.