Photograph by Peter Schickert, Alamy Stock Photo
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Monterey Bay Whale Watch, with boats leaving from Fisherman's Wharf, offers visitors a great chance for wildlife tourism.

Photograph by Peter Schickert, Alamy Stock Photo

See Monterey like a Nat Geo Explorer

From nature walks to good eats, take advantage of these insider tips to this California hot spot.

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 like ridiculously 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. 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 for good

Visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium helps support a host of vital and effective ocean conservation programs. Our local Whole Foods also donates bag fees to nearby charities.

What's in my bag

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Tourists to the Monterey Bay Aquarium watch an ocean sunfish (also known as a mola mola).

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. (Learn how to take your next trip without single-use plastics.)

Traditional crafts

On Tuesdays from 3 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 Bay by 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 couple reading his poetry with a visit to Tor House.

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.

Ethical travel tips

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.

Savor the flavors

Julia’s Vegetarian Restaurant pays locals to collect wild mushrooms and makes amazing dishes with them. Hula’s is a great local place with a Hawaiian flair. Passionfish is the go-to place for seafood that is sustainably sourced. Tricycle Pizza near the Monterey Bay Aquarium makes handmade organic pizzas with local ingredients in a wood-fired oven. 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.

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.

Must-visit spots

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is world-famous for a reason. It’s fantastic. Point Lobos—the crown jewel of the California park system—has harbor seal pups on the beaches in the spring and cormorant chicks in the summer.

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.