At the world-famous aquarium in Monterey (where Curious Traveler Shannon Switzer is passing through right about now), jellyfish are the star attractions. Varieties you never imagined existed float silently in tanks flooded in blue light. It’s spectacular.
In Atlanta’s aquarium, it’s the whale sharks. You never expected to see these enormous creatures outside a TV documentary, yet there they are in front of you. And they’re amazing.
The two aquariums — the legendary Monterey Bay Aquarium and the newish Georgia Aquarium (which is said to be the largest in the U.S.) — are noteworthy destinations in their own right. You can’t visit either city without at least considering a drop in.
We were lucky to see both aquariums within a week of each other on a recent road trip across America. But what if we could have chosen just one aquarium to visit? Which one would we have picked?
When it comes to authenticity, neither facility offers an obvious edge; both are manufactured experiences to some degree. Monterey’s Cannery Row, the backdrop of two John Steinbeck novels, is as touristy as it gets in Northern California. There’s a Bubba Gump and a Johnny Rocket’s chain hotels up the wazoo. The Atlanta aquarium is similarly positioned, with neighbors like the World of Coca-Cola and the CNN Center.
Monterey: Jellyfish Rule
We stopped by the Monterey Aquarium on a weekday morning. It was already busy, mostly with school groups, but not crowded. Our kids were drawn to the lower levels of the facility, which housed something called the Jellies Experience.
You know how every aquarium promises you an “immersive” experience? Well, this was it. From the funky ’70s soundtrack to the lighting, which varied from a deep blue to disco strobes, you felt as if you were being drawn into the world of these small, beautiful creatures.
Jellyfish are fragile and some are quite rare. The ones we saw bore no resemblance to the bleached-out jellies you see washed up on the beach. These were colorful and animated. Our five-year-old daughter pressed her nose against the glass and gazed at the jellyfish as if they were aliens from another world, which, in a sense, they are.
Monterey’s aquarium offers far more than jellyfish, of course, and you can find a wide variety of sharks, marine mammals, and reptiles on display in its tanks. The place is great overall, but the jellyfish will leave an indelible impression.
Atlanta: Bigger is Better
We visited the Georgia Aquarium on a weekend, which in retrospect was probably a mistake. It was packed with visitors (I will resist using any metaphors that involve sardines to describe how crowded it was). This aquarium takes it to the next level. It’s part mall, part concert, and part theme park (and I mean that in the best possible way — after all, we hail from Orlando).
Even with so much going on, you can’t help but be drawn to the large tropical area, where the whale sharks are found.
The moment I, a former SCUBA diving instructor, walked into the exhibit area and saw a tank teeming with grouper, rays, sharks, and of course the larger-than-life whale shark, I instinctively began to moderate my breathing.
There were plenty of other attractions, too — including a fascinating exhibit on frogs, a shark “petting” tank, and a penguin area. But let’s not kid ourselves: the real draw was the shark tank.
Pick one, kids
In our family of five, the question of which aquarium was better got a split vote. Our oldest son was partial to Monterey because he’s an avid photographer, and the picture opportunities were better in California. Our middle son liked the interactive playground in Atlanta, with its kids-only slides and full-size fishing boat. And our youngest remains mesmerized by the jellies.
And mom and dad? We like to avoid crowds, so Cannery Row’s proximity to the Pacific appealed to us. But we also loved the whale sharks in Atlanta and can’t stop talking about ‘em.
Elliott writes the Insider column for National Geographic Traveler. He and his family are traveling across the country and writing about it this summer on their family travel blog.