Why Monterey Bay is the Serengeti of marine life

Whales, sharks, and giant sunfish teem in the waters off the Central California city of Monterey.

Monterey is California’s hot spot for ocean lovers. It’s home to the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium, where you can come face-to-face with otherwise elusive marine life such as cute sea otters, giant ocean sunfish, and hypnotic jellies. You can explore the very same tide pools that captivated John Steinbeck. 

If your stomach’s seaworthy, you can even venture offshore into water so chock-full of whales, sharks, seals, squid, sea otters, and seabirds we call it the Blue Serengeti. Want more? Hop in and join National Geographic’s Summer Adventures on the Road, immersive online guides geared to families, to learn more about the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

Monterey was the original capital of California, so it has a special place in the state’s history. Add to all this its rich literary tradition and fantastic restaurants, and Monterey is the poster child for how a community can pull together to restore ecosystem health and create a thriving tourist destination.

I work at the intersection of science, media, and conservation. My National Geographic–funded research includes tracking and tagging giant ocean sunfish, consulting on ocean conservation solutions, studying the effects of nature imagery on incarcerated populations, and mapping human brain activity patterns in response to nature imagery. I am also an independent filmmaker.

Travel Tips

I always travel with reusable straws, bags, utensils, cups, takeaway containers, and a bag for picking up trash—particularly at the beach. I also have a mask and snorkel handy so I can peer into any body of water. 

Read about the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program and familiarize yourself with what fish are the best to eat—or give eating meat a rest. Reduce your consumption of single-use plastic.

Be gentle when exploring the coastline. Don’t collect any animals from the tide pools in the National Marine Sanctuary. Don’t traipse all over the anemones, don’t litter, and don’t get so close to the seals, sea lions, and otters that they have to move.

(Sea turtles? Hummingbird charms? Here’s why you shouldn’t buy these wildlife souvenirs on your next trip.)

Traditional crafts

On Tuesdays from 4 to 7 p.m., check out the Old Monterey Farmers Market on Alvarado Street. The street is closed to cars, and farmers and local craftspeople have booths selling everything from fresh boysenberries and broccoli to Big Sur jade jewelry, poison oak honey, and handmade hats.

Must-read books

The Nobel Prize–winning author John Steinbeck is perhaps Monterey Bay’s most famous writer, and his books, particularly Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday, paint a vivid picture of what the area was like during the Great Depression. The Death and Life of Monterey Bayby Stephen Palumbi and Carolyn Sotka, tells the story of how the health of Monterey Bay was restored through the passion of some amazingly colorful characters, including an eccentric mayor, a tech-savvy philanthropist, and sea otters. Eco-poet Robinson Jeffers is the most revered local poet and you could complement a reading of his poetry with a visit to Tor House.

(Here are 12 travel books you won’t be able to put down this summer.)

Take a class

Sign up for scuba diving classes at Bamboo Reef, learn to sea kayak at Kayak Connections, or take a pickling class at Happy Girl Kitchen.

Savor the flavors

Julia’s Vegetarian Restaurant pays locals to collect wild mushrooms and makes amazing dishes with them. Hula’s Island Grill is a great local place with a Hawaiian flair. Passionfish is the go-to place for seafood that is sustainably sourced. Happy Girl Kitchen’s mission is to enrich the local food community. They specialize in pickles and preserves but have a full café as well.

Get off the beaten path

Begin your literary tour by visiting the Robinson Jeffers Tor House, which is like stepping back in time to the bohemian days of Carmel and Monterey. Then stop at the Doc Ricketts Lab of Steinbeck fame, one of the only remaining buildings from the days of the canneries.

Cultural heritage

The Monterey Museum of Art always has interesting exhibits. I like the historic walking tour sites that trace Monterey’s past—especially the Custom House and the home of Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island.

Explore the outdoors

There is no shortage of ways to interact with nature in Monterey. One of my favorite pastimes is tide pooling along the road to Asilomar from the aquarium to look for anemones, octopuses, flatworms, and crabs.

Point Lobos, outside of Carmel, has some of the most beautiful ocean scenery in the world. It offers great views of harbor seals, cormorants, pelicans, and whales depending on the time of year. Depending on the season, you can also view sea lions at the Breakwater Coast Guard pier and harbor seals on the beach in front of the Hopkins Marine Station library located just south of the aquarium.

<p>Just below the California-Oregon border, <a href="https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=413" target="_blank">Jedediah Smith Redwood State Park</a> promises fairy-tale rainforest paths through towering redwood groves and secret rope swings over trickling creeks. Hunt for banana slugs, pitch a tent (dogs are allowed at campsites), and snorkel in the Smith River, the longest free-flowing river in California.</p>

Just below the California-Oregon border, Jedediah Smith Redwood State Park promises fairy-tale rainforest paths through towering redwood groves and secret rope swings over trickling creeks. Hunt for banana slugs, pitch a tent (dogs are allowed at campsites), and snorkel in the Smith River, the longest free-flowing river in California.

Photograph by Mason Trinca

For whale-watching, I recommend Monterey Bay Whale Watch with Nancy Black. The boats leave from Fisherman’s Wharf.

Go birding and kayaking down Elkhorn Slough in Moss Landing to see the hundreds of different bird species as well as the many sea otters that call the slough home. If kayaking is not your thing, check out Whisper Charters. This electric boat service provides binoculars, snacks, and a comfortable ride. Ask for Brian to be your tour guide—he is a wealth of knowledge.

Dr. Tierney Thys is an ardent ocean scientist, conservationist, science media producer, National Geographic Explorer, research associate at the California Academy of Sciences, and TED All-Star speaker.

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funded Explorer Thys’ work. Learn more about the Society’s support of ocean Explorers.

Young adventurers can activate their inner explorer this summer by visiting some of North America’s most interesting places—virtually or in real life—and learn about wildlife, Indigenous history, geological characteristics and more with National Geographic’s Summer Adventure on the Road series.

This story has been updated with new information since it first published on Feb. 19, 2019.

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