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Jack Smith

Some Monterey landmarks may be gone, but the phenomenal pull of the sea is still felt on the shore

August 13, 1986|JACK SMITH

In writing recently of Monterey, I speculated that John Steinbeck would be dismayed to find his Cannery Row transformed into a tourist mecca of pretentious restaurants and junky souvenir shops.

A few readers have written to protest that some of the old landmarks are still there, including Doc's biological lab and the vacant lot, and that some of the restaurants are good; but I looked in vain for the Bear Flag, Dora Flood's "decent, clean, honest, old-fashioned sporting house"--12 girls and a Greek cook.

No excuse need be made, though, for one thing that has been added: the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

We went to see it on a Monday morning with our friends Morry and Rita Pynoos. The aquarium is a triumph of camouflage. Like many of the sea creatures it houses, it blends almost invisibly into its environment. From the outside it looks like just another fish cannery, including smokestacks.

But inside it is spacious, towering, airy and ingeniously designed for the display of its collection and the movement of crowds.

The heart of the aquarium is the Habitat Walk through a series of exhibits that simulate the various topographical features of Monterey Bay--shale reefs, sandy shore, sandy sea floor, deep reefs, the wharf, rocky shore, coastal stream, tide pools and the slough.

There are no exotics in this aquarium. Monterey Bay itself has provided all the specimens, and the aquarium has recreated, in miniature, the teeming life of the bay.

In one great tank, schools of salmon, as silver as new dollars, swim ceaselessly back and forth in exquisitely precise formation. Below them sea anemones cling to rocks, their pure white hungry plumes extended up like royal crowns. Sharks that have hardly changed in 100 million years of evolution glide back and forth, up and down, hunting every moment of their lives.

Every creature in the aquarium is hunting for some lesser creature to eat. Some tiny fishes lie in the sand, almost disappearing with protective coloration; they look asleep, but they are merely hiding from their enemies, meanwhile hoping that some tasty tidbit will come along.

In another tank an octopus clings to the glass, its suction cups flattened out as it moves. Like that of many other hapless animals, the sex life of the male octopus is traumatic. One of his eight arms becomes enlarged and modified as a sex organ. From this arm he deposits spermatozoa under the mantle-skirt of the female. In some species the arm is detached and left there. The male then withdraws to mend, and the female finds some rocky retreat in which she lays and protects her eggs alone. With all its drawbacks, the human system seems better.

We happened to be standing in front of the big tank at feeding time. Small fish began sinking from the surface, flashing silver in the sunlight as they turned. Instantly the tank was galvanized; life quickened. Every swimming fish subtly put on speed. Predators began ripping off the little silver fish. Some carried them off; some gobbled them on contact.

Suddenly something plunged down from the surface like a projectile. It was a bird, but so streamlined in the water as to look like a fish. Silver bubbles rushed back along its body and trailed off behind. It dived swiftly, in an arc, picked off a sinking fish in its beak and shot back to the surface.

"It's a duck!" my wife exclaimed.

"No, it's a cormorant," I said, not knowing what it was.

Its phenomenal performance made me think how like fishes birds still are. We all have our origins in the primeval soup.

The tide pool tank reminded me of the deep tide pools we have in Baja California near our house. Crabs, starfish and anemones cling to their rocky home. Suddenly a great surge of seawater crashes into the tank, like an ocean wave. Everything is buried in this churning tide; then gradually it recedes, leaving the habitat wet and glistening and refreshed. So the ocean brings air and food to every tiny recess along the shore.

We were drawn to a large unscreened pool called the Touch Pool. Visitors are invited to reach down in the water and touch the animals. The tank was occupied, as far as we could see, only by bat rays, those flat, sinister-looking fish with widespread flat fins like wings and a long tail which, according to legend, has a stinger at its end.

But a card by the Touch Pool reassured us that while the bat ray did indeed have a stinger, it was closer to the base of the tail than the end. Somehow that made it seem less dangerous.

Morry Pynoos was fascinated by the Touch Pool. He is president of the Los Angeles Children's Museum, and it occurred to him that the museum might put a touch pool in the new home it plans to build. He was excited by the prospect.

"Wouldn't that be great?" he said. "So the kids could reach in and touch a fish?"

He couldn't wait to touch a ray. He rolled up a sleeve of his blazer and reached down into the pool, waiting for a ray to come near. One did. He reached down and put his hand flat against the ray's back. Then quickly he withdrew his hand.

He seemed to have lost his smile and some of his excitement. "It feels slimy," he said.

I don't know whether Morry still wants to put a touch pool in the new museum, but I wouldn't count on it.

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