Quick Take:

The Monterey Bay Aquarium has reopened, and visits there are almost back to normal, with a few key differences. The Seymour Marine Discovery Center also is beginning to resume operations but in a more limited way.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium has reopened its doors after being closed for more than a year. Member admission began on May 1, and, as of May 5, the general public can reserve tickets for visits beginning on May 15.

“We’re just thrilled to be able to open the galleries to visitors again,” said Ken Peterson, the aquarium’s communications director. “The only time in our history we were ever closed before was the day after the Loma Prieta earthquake, and that was for the day.”

The aquarium, a mainstay recreation destination for Santa Cruz residents, had been closed for more than a year, the longest closure in its history. During that time it suffered financial losses and had to lay off 40% of its staff. Now, with visitors back in the building at 886 Cannery Row in Monterey, a long-awaited sense of normalcy is returning, for employees and visitors.

“There have been a lot of tears from people telling us they didn’t realize how emotional the experience would be for them to come back after not being able to for over a year,” Peterson said. The demand for tickets was overwhelming when they first opened to the general public, with wait times on the website of up to an hour. But Peterson said this has calmed down after the initial frenzy, and people should now be able to find a spot, though it may be several weeks or more in advance.

Of course, the pandemic isn’t over yet, and a visit during COVID won’t be the same as it was in the before-times. Here’s a preview of what you can expect:

Buy your tickets ahead of time, arrive early, bring a well-fitting mask:

  • For the first time ever, the aquarium is requiring all visitors to buy their tickets in advance, and the tickets come with designated arrival times. You can purchase the tickets on their website here.
  • Arrive at least five minutes before your scheduled time. If you are late, you may be turned away and asked to rebook.
  • Everyone over age 3 is required to wear a mask, and the aquarium won’t admit anyone wearing neck gaiters, scarves, bandanas or face shields.

Smaller crowds, less crowding

  • The aquarium’s normal maximum capacity is about 10,000 people, but right now staff are limiting it to around 2,000. “We’ve been hearing from folks who come in the members who come in, and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t expect it to be this empty,’” Peterson said.
  • Some of of the more enthralling attractions will be closed, including scheduled feedings, touch tanks and the kids’ play area. “We just don’t want to create situations where people get so excited that they forget to distance,” Peterson said. “Some of the exhibits where people would tend to congregate, those are closed for now.”
  • Social distancing between parties will be enforced. The cafe is open, but is operating with touchless ordering and extra space between tables.

Prescribed routes

  • Previously, visitors could wander through the galleries at will. Now, there are two one-way routes through the exhibits. Both end at the outdoor deck, where staff will help guide wildlife viewing.
  • Despite the new routes, “you can still come in the door and stay as long as you like,” Peterson said. Anyone can visit the same exhibit more than once, they just have to traverse the correct one-way route to get there.

New critters!

  • In the splash zone, there’s a new tropical exhibit which includes the black and white striped Banggai cardinalfish. “That’s a brand new group of animals, and it really is a stunning exhibit,” Peterson said.
  • Sand dollars are related to sea stars, and many of them in the aquarium were killed by Sea Star Wasting Syndrome. But one of the staff members has figured out how to raise sand dollars, “so now we’ve got kind of, sand nickels and sand dimes growing up,” which are on display, Peterson said.

What about our local marine education centers?

Seymour Marine Discovery Center

Closer to home, the Seymour Marine Discovery Center — a part of UC Santa Cruz — has long been a place where visitors can learn both about the animals on display, and the related research UCSC scientists are doing to study the animals and their environment. The center, at 100 McAllister Way in Santa Cruz, has recently reopened to visitors, but outdoors only and for limited hours: between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Saturday. The center has created special docent-guided outdoor exhibits and activities. Admission is free and parking is available in the Seymour Center lot. You can subscribe to the center’s online newsletter for updates on when hours will be expanded.

The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center

The Sanctuary Exploration Center, near Cowell’s Beach and operated by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, is closed until further notice.

Follow Mallory Pickett on: Twitter. Mallory brings deep expertise in environmental issues to Lookout, as well as national reporting experience that she will now apply in her hometown of Santa Cruz. She...