Kids Visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seahorses for Free!

Do you support the Bay Area’s Public TV stations – KQED in San Francisco or KTEH in San Jose? Then whip out that membership card at the Monterey Bay Aquarium this week to get a FREE child’s admission ticket (worth $17.95) when you buy an adult ticket for $29.95.

Monterey Bay Aquarium – A California Marine Adventure

Like most fish stories, this one just gets better over time. In 1984, on the site of a cannery immortalized by John Steinbeck, a new attraction showcasing the splendors of the sea opened its doors. In large glass tanks designed for easy viewing, sleepy-eyed octopuses clung to coral outcrops. Slow-motion stingrays kicked up sand along the bottom while antic otters skittered across the surface, clacking shellfish like castanets.

In its first year the Monterey Bay Aquarium, built with backing from electronics mogul David Packard, drew 2.3 million visitors—twice as many as its founders expected. It brought crowds face-to-face with ocean life as it is rarely seen, in all its beauty and fragility. Visitors watched the stumbling flight of seabirds rescued from a coastal oil spill. They cooed over the nursing of an undersize otter abandoned by its mother and nicknamed Milk Dud because of its reluctance to take a bottle. They stood in the shadow of a towering kelp forest, every stalk of it transplanted from nearby waters and growing at a rate of four to six inches a day.

Every year the aquarium added new exhibits. It installed a million-gallon tank to accommodate tuna, the sports cars of the ocean. You can see their gleaming bodies warp into overdrive in the rush to feed. A beautiful fishbowl, set into the ceiling of a round display room, provided a showcase where anchovies flickered like a thousand silver dollars. Children began to grasp the ocean’s wonders by dipping their fingers into tide pools.

As the aquarium grew, so did its reputation. This year, as it celebrates its 20th anniversary, Monterey’s jewel has been rated in a Zagat survey as the best aquarium in the country and the third-best family attraction in the United States, after Disney World and SeaWorld in Florida. Its horizons have broadened. Once focused solely on Monterey Bay, the aquarium now casts a broad gaze on oceans everywhere. As always, the emphasis is on conservation, on ecofriendly education. But another constant is the elegance and ingeniousness of each exhibit—the aquarium succeeds in capturing underwater worlds in their essence and setting them before the viewer as aquatic art.

“Through our living exhibits, we can touch people deeply and inspire them to act on the oceans’ behalf,” says Packard’s daughter Julie, a marine biologist herself and the aquarium’s executive director. “It’s something we’re in a unique position to do, and it’s more important now than ever.”

That spirit is apparent in two of the newest exhibits. Jellies: Living Art devotes itself to the iridescent drifters, its display cases shimmering with lobed-comb jellies and sea nettles, animals with pulsing lava-lamp bodies and tentacles as frilly as lingerie. Though they have no heads, hearts, eyes, or brains, jellyfish have gotten by very well, thank you, flourishing for 650 million years, since before the dinosaurs’ day. They’ve inspired the work of artists (the exhibit’s free-form glass by Dale Chihuly sparkles as an example) and the respect of scientists, who marvel at their skill as predators. Jellies stun their prey with stinging tentacles, some more brutally than others. A jellyfish called the sea wasp, which lives in the waters around Australia, is the deadliest animal in the ocean; people have died within three minutes of its sting.

Jellies, of course, don’t willfully hunt humans, and neither do sharks, a point made clear in Sharks: Myth and Mystery. This new exhibit sets its sights on the ocean’s most misunderstood inhabitants, exploring the shark’s place in folklore across cultures and replacing flawed perceptions with fact. Here visitors meet such little-known species as the epaulette shark (with a black spot like a porthole on each side of its body) and stumble on statistics rarely considered: Every year, more people are killed by falling coconuts than by sharks. Still, as predators, sharks are coldly efficient. They can sense blood in the water in infinitesimal concentrations. To call them born hunters would be an understatement. Sharks of some species cannibalize each other in the embryo stage.

Visitors come across these facts in a setting appropriate for learning about consumption. The aquarium stands on land once occupied by the Hovden Cannery, one of dozens of such businesses that prospered in Monterey before the sardine fisheries off the coast collapsed. In his 1945 novel named for the strip, Steinbeck described Cannery Row as “a poem, a stink, a grating noise.” These days, though, Cannery Row is something more straightforward: a busy commercial stretch that caters to tourists while serving slivers of the region’s past.

Recent renovations of the aquarium’s facade evoke the industrial look of the Hovden Cannery. Knut Hovden, its founder, spoke of opening an aquarium in Monterey as early as the 1920s. He never did. It took some 60 years before others fulfilled Hovden’s unrealized dream. It seems unlikely, though, that an institution of this scope figured in the cannery owner’s wildest schemes. Perhaps nowhere in the world are the vast and vulnerable oceans brought into view so vividly. Wandering through the aquarium’s halls, a visitor gets the sense of a limitless place, confined only by the boundaries of the imagination, like the storied big one that got away.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium, 886 Cannery Row, is open daily except for Christmas. Admission: $19.95 (adults), $17.95 (age 65 and older), $15.95 (ages 13–17), $8.95 (ages 3–12). Hours: 9:30 a.m.–6 p.m. May 29–Sept. 6 and holidays; 10 a.m.–6 p.m. the rest of the year. For information, call (831) 648-4888

More Free Things to Do in San Francisco

Free Dance Performances: Hit & Run Hulu Comes to San Francisco!

Dozens of hula dancers hit the streets of San Francisco Saturday, August 15, for a day of FREE guerilla performance. Traveling the SF streets on a large bus, kumu hula Patrick Makuākane and his dance company, Nā Lei Hulu I Ka Wēkiu, will surprise and inspire unsuspecting crowds with spontaneous Hawaiian dancing.

You can keep track of where the 35 grass-skirt wearing, drum-beating dancers will descend from their bus by following them on Twitter and Facebook. Or you can catch the first hula hula at 10am in and around the Ferry
Building and Farmer’s Market.

The spontaneous performances are part of Dancers’ Group’s ONSITE series. The day-long hula hijinks span from downtown to the Ferry Plaza, Dolores Park to the Castro, ending at Ocean Beach.

Visit San Francisco for a Free Birthday Flick!

You say it’s your birthday! So blow out those candles and head to Balboa Theater for FREE admission to a marquee movie. That’s right, you can forgo the $8.50 admission—still one of the best bargains in town—and settle in your seat for 90+ minutes of film fun on one of the theater’s two screens. Popcorn is extra. Bring ID. A birth certificate made on your computer doesn’t count.

Make the most of your freebie by perusing the photo exhibit in the lobby. Check out the box in the lobby filled with like new movie posters! And anyone can take one — just one — for FREE!

If you fall in love with seeing a film at the Balboa, and who wouldn’t at this 1926 building gem, consider getting the “I’d Rather Be At the Balboa” Discount Card: 5 movie tix for $32.50. That’s only $6.50 per show. Good any day or night. And two people can use the card so you can splurge for date night!

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