Last Thursday I joined my friend Alana and her 2-year-old daughter Keiran on a day trip down to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Alana is 9 months pregnant and did not want to drive from San Jose to Monterey with just a toddler for company, and my flexible work schedule made me a viable companion. Why is this relevant? Because being pregnant–especially third trimester–creates a set of specific physical challenges.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a California icon. The denizens of the Aquarium’s tanks include members of the local Monterey Bay species, endangered and threatened wildlife, and a few bright tropical fish that attract the attention of toddlers brought up watching Finding Nemo. Right now, the Secret Lives of Seahorses shows off the unusual mating and breeding practices, and the wide variety of the versatile species. The cute, cuddly-looking sea otters pour on the charm, hoping their adoring fans might start throwing fish.
There’s no parking attached to or immediately adjacent to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Unless you sacrifice a goat to the parking gods and show up at 6am to get a street-side spot on Cannery Row, expect to walk at least a quarter of a mile and possibly more than a mile from one of the Cannery Row area’s parking garages (some of which are several long, steep blocks from Cannery Row). If you’re staying in Monterey or Carmel, it might be worth the extra money to take a cab and have it drop you at the door. Another alternative is for the most able-bodied member of your party to drop off passengers at the door of the Aquarium, then park. That person can also go get the car to pick you up at the end of your visit.
Folks with disabled placards can try to snag one of the few, precious handicapped spots next to the Aquarium building. But don’t count on this–it’s a small, small little lot.
Navigating the Interior
As aquariums go, this one’s medium-sized. If you can’t walk at least a quarter of a mile, plan to use a wheelchair or scooter. The Aquarium offers free wheelchairs for use by guests on a first-come, first-served basis. If you prefer a scooter, you’ll have to BYO. Strollers are permitted, but stroller users are encouraged to park the beasts in designated areas rather than pushing them through tight exhibit spaces if the kid isn’t actually riding.
Navigating the Aquarium can be a challenge–some of the signage is confusing, and the crowds around the exhibits can bottle up the flow of foot traffic. Maps help–you can pick one up at an information kiosk, or print out the PDF from the web site and bring it with you.
Elevators serve both of the major sections of the Aquarium.
The Aquarium’s got plenty of benches scattered throughout its exhibit halls. Most of these are low, flat, hard wood. The ones that sit up against walls have back rests, in the sense that I could lean back against the wall. Oh how I wish I’d brought a pillow! A stadium seat that’s got a back rest might work pretty well at the Aquarium.
I could watch fishes and read placards while sitting and resting–that’s a nice feature.
If you have anxiety problems in crowds, the Aquarium may be a big challenge. Weekends are the worst–expect to be crushed into exhibits with hundreds of people, fighting and maneuvering to get to see the residents of the tanks. On weekday mornings throughout the school year, flocks of school kids on field trips shriek and run and point and yell. The quietest you’ll ever find the Aquarium is midafternoon on a weekday…for relative values of “quietest.”
There’s an on-site Cafe at the Aquarium that serves expensive but tasty and healthful food. A dense scatter of tables and molded plastic chairs seat cafe diners. On crowded days, the wait for a table can be an hour. For a quicker and more comfortable lunch, leave the Aquarium and head up Cannery Row to one of the seafood restaurants. They’re touristy, but they’re comfortable and numerous.
It seems that the designers of the Aquarium considered the crowds when they planned the restrooms. Bathrooms lie next to several of the major galleries on both of the main floors. Ladies rooms have plenty of stalls–enough to keep lines from forming most of the time. Because there’s more than one major restroom, getting to them isn’t difficult. Signs are pretty good, and the maps point out the restroom locations.
Sadly, I didn’t see any couches or armchairs in any of the ladies rooms I visited. But Alana found the kind of changing table she prefers–the changing area set into a counter, rather than a pull-down plastic table.
Upstairs, off to the right of the kelp forest tank, lurks the best thing that could happen to parents of young children at the Aquarium. The play area. School-aged kids can run, slide, crawl, and splash while their parents sit down and take a well-deserved rest. The toddler area is segregated by a low wall so that the little ones don’t get mowed over by bigger kids.
The Bottom Line
For me, the Aquarium takes a whole day’s worth of spoons. I wouldn’t try to tour Cannery Row on the same day, even though the Aquarium foots the Row. The Monterey Bay Aquarium makes for a full, tiring day for a traveler with pain. It’s great fun, and totally worth the effort and spoons.
Photo (c) pmarkham on flickr