We visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium, home to deep sea creatures and orphan otters

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The Monterey Bay Aquarium is famous for its exuberant sea otters. But did you know they also rescue orphaned otters and release them back into the wild when they’re ready? The aquarium is also home to many other species. Including deep-sea creatures few have ever seen in person before the Into the Deep exhibit opened earlier this year. Among all the opportunities to see and even touch marine plants and animals, there are also some famous filming locations. In just a few hours, you can browse exhibits showcasing beach life down to the depths of the ocean. Or even going back in time to 1986, when Spock mentally fused with a whale.

That’s what we learned during a recent visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Sea Otter Surrogacy

Although you can’t make it to the aquarium in person, you can watch the sea otters frolic through a live camera. The raft, as a group of sea otters are called, is currently made up of female otters that cannot be released into the wild. Those that show maternal instincts become surrogate mothers for orphaned otters. They teach baby otters survival skills, like how to groom and hunt.

A person wearing a black pancho and welding mask extends his arm to a young sea otter floating in a water tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Monterey Bay Aquarium

The aquarium does not name the orphan otters in its care, referring to them only by numbers. They also don the so-called “Darth Vader costume” when interacting with them. A black poncho and welding helmet ensure the puppies don’t imprint on humans, which could spell disaster for them in the wild. Most raise their own pups in nearby Elkhorn Swamp, where otters help maintain the health of the ecosystem. Check out the PBS documentary on Otter 501 to learn more about this important work.

A baby sea otter drinks from a bottle of milk held by a person wearing blue gloves at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Monterey Bay Aquarium

Underwater exhibition

The new Into the Deep exhibit features many creatures that have never been displayed in an aquarium before. In some cases, the scientists studying them had never even seen live specimens, relying on images and ROV (remotely operated vehicle) collections to learn more about them. Some of the lighting in the exhibit’s seabed tanks mimics ROV headlights, showing the view we’re used to seeing. There are sea cucumbers and siphonophores. And even giant isopods you can touch! The water is very cold because that’s what deep sea animals need, but it’s a remarkable experience.

The aquarium’s research and technology partner, MBARI, uses its vessels and ROVs to collect specimens from the canyons of Monterey Bay. Like the bloody comb jelly pooping shimmers. Some have been collected from other areas of the deep sea, more than 200 meters (656 ft) below the ocean surface. The spider crabs pictured below are examples of the massive size of deep sea life. There is also a live camera of this tank. For scale, these are bone casts of a young sperm whale. The animals on display will rotate for the duration of the long-term exhibit, so there’s always a chance to discover something new.

Two spider crabs crawl over whale bones in a tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Monterey Bay Aquarium

Filming locations

No visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium is complete without a pop culture tour. The opening credits of pretty little lies includes images from the Open Sea exhibit. Turtles, sharks and thousands of sardines call this 1.2 million gallon tank their home. The show’s characters even work at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, so there are after-hours and behind-the-scenes glimpses as well.

There is no Sigourney Weaver narration, but there are many similarities to the Marine Life Institute of Finding Dory. That’s because the aquarium provided technical advice for the Pixar movie. Hank the octopus is even named after one of the staff!

Spock and Admiral Kirk lean against a railing watching a humpback whale in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Paramount Pictures

Just two years after the aquarium opened in 1984, Star Trek IV: The Journey Home featured key scenes filmed there. Although it was named Cetacean Institute and located north of San Francisco in the movie. The outdoor plaza and kelp tank display cases showed plot-critical humpback whales, as well as Spock taking a quick dip. Even though the aquarium has never housed humpback whales, people still come to see George and Gracie.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium seen from the surface of the ocean, with buildings rising above the kelp forest
Monterey Bay Aquarium

One of my favorite exhibits is a tank with an unnamed species of comb jelly. Instead of the usual signage, it says “Hello, my name is ____” and the blank will be filled in once scientists know more about the tiny red creature. It’s a new discovery and really shows how much we still have to learn about the ocean.

I highly recommend a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. If you’re not able to make it in person, check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium YouTube channel for live cams and other beautiful, educational content.

Featured Image: Monterey Bay Aquarium

Melissa is Nerdist’s science and technology editor. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has been her happy place since she was a child, arranging starfish at the touch tank. She leads “science of” panels at conventions and co-hosts Star Warsologies, a podcast about science and Star Wars. Follow her on Twitter @melissatruth.

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