We watch them, they watch us

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a great place to learn about the scope of what’s below the waves, a visual cornucopia where you can spend hours feasting on one more view.  From the shores to the deep, there’s usually a display and creature to capture your interest.

I’ve photographed in the aquarium before, challenging my skills with low light and moving sea life.  I’ve found it hard to present a sense of the place even though the exhibits are thoughtfully laid out with plenty of space and sight lines.  This time, however, I took a different approach.

If you look over this blog even a little you realize seeing people in my images is a rare thing.  I’m usually pursuing the grand or intimate landscape and for me people generally don’t help tell the story.  At the aquarium, though, I realized the people are an important element of the experience.  This time I selected some perspectives to try and show how people interact with the exhibits.  After editing I realized it was the dark scenes that attracted me the most, places in the aquarium where the creatures are highlighted but people become part of the display because they could get close and examine what they were interested in.

The Open Sea

The Open Sea is a huge tank containing creatures like tuna, sea turtles, bonita, sunfish, sharks, rays, etc.  The light into the tank is always pretty dim but the soft glow into the dark room draws you to the glass as soon as you walk in.  Every time I’ve been here it has been the same image; these silhouettes of people just mesmerized by the creatures slowing swimming by.  It’s like standing in front of an enormous fishbowl!  Actually, this image poorly conveys just how big this display is – the image above used my widest lens and I’m only showing about half the glass.  Those tuna swimming by in the picture?  They are probably 5-6 feet long.

The Bay

This display is a little more typical, although it goes back much farther than the image can reveal.  This is an example of what a diver might see in the shallower parts of Monterey Bay.  In spite of all the kids running around the aquarium this day, it was the adults that would stand for minutes just watching the fish glide by.

Jellyfish Experience

This display has been at the aquarium for several years and it’s easy to see why they keep it.  People enter the exhibit and suddenly find themselves in another world inhabited by these strange, alien creatures.  The lighting really contrasts the jellyfish so they are easy to see.  I think part of the good feeling you get in this exhibit is the warm and cool colors present – it’s actually very peaceful just to walk around.

Most of the other exhibits have visitors pointed at the creatures or following them around the glass but the jellyfish tanks are like meditation zones.  People just stand and watch the creatures slowly drift around, revealing new perspectives all the time.  Maybe it’s the unworldly aspect of these animals that holds your attention.  With no frame of reference (no arms, no legs, no eyes or ears) every twist and turn presents a new view to try and understand.

Until I looked at this image I never realized there were 3D sculptures on the wall – that’s how fixated on the jellyfish you can become.

Moon Jellies

These are a favorite of visitors, I think because you can see them in the Bay much of the time.  They are so delicate and fragile looking, as if a strong breeze would disrupt them.  I liked this lady’s quizzical expression and how her face and hands seem to float in the darkness.

It is a great place to visit and I certainly recommend it to anyone traveling to the central coast.  When you are there, take some time to look around and experience how other visitors are responding to what you are seeing.


4 thoughts on “We watch them, they watch us

    • Kate,
      I think they installed this display in mid-2000’s to much fanfare. Perhaps they were the first place to do this? It’s done very well and the visitors certainly love to hang out there.


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