Conserveing for a Healthy Tomorrow
By Andrea Stuart | Photos courtesy of Monterey Bay Aquarium
Jellyfish pulsate their bells in synchronization, their tentacles swirling like tendrils doing water ballet. Stalks of kelp dance with the tide while fish sway in rhythm with the drift and a leopard shark confidently weaves between the green shoots. Witnessing this scene encourages deep, relaxed breathing and a feeling of connection. This is what happens while watching the Jelly and Kelp Forest Cams at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. This is nature’s spell.
Cynthia Vernon, chief operating officer of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, understands the importance of our relationship with the natural environment. With more than three decades of conservation education and informal science experience, she leads the Aquarium’s education and guest experiences teams as well as all of its operations. As such, she’s had a hand in most of the adaptations that the Aquarium has made since closing in March 2020, due to COVID-19.
Volunteers are an integral part of running the ambitious facility. The Aquarium has 1,500 volunteers, 1,200 of whom normally serve as docents. Although most of those positions are not currently available due to the pandemic, many volunteers have stayed engaged with the Aquarium and its supporters through targeted virtual events and enrichment classes. Some volunteers also provide enrichments for fellow guides. “We still have a limited number of volunteers on-site who help with the dive program, animal care, the sea otter program, and so on,” says Vernon. “We’ll welcome everyone back as soon as we open!”
Because physical visits have not been possible, Vernon says the education staff have
developed free online education programs. “We have been able to expand our reach
because of this. [In November], we started offering virtual field trips,” she explains.
“Normally, kids come for on-site Discovery Lab classes in our new education center.
Now, staff are delivering those virtually, from their backyards and living rooms, in
English and Spanish.”
Each year, more than 100,000 children and teachers come to the Monterey Bay
Aquarium. And to date, more than 40,000 people have registered for the online
classes from all over the United States. The Aquarium also offers teacher programs,
curriculums, and materials for children in pre-K through high school. “The online
classes offer fun experiences as lessons and opportunities to make things at home,
such as creating binoculars using toilet paper rolls. Kids can do it themselves or with
an adult,” adds Vernon.
Mental health has been another focus for the Aquarium. What started as an idea
to bring peace to the public via a dozen animal webcams has turned into a virtual
phenomenon. “We weren’t prepared for the huge, positive response from the
public,” admits Vernon. “[The webcams] help people get reconnected to the natural
world, and they bring them peace. People tune in as part of their daily routine.” The
Aquarium’s website has had over seven million visits since March 2020, triple its usual
number of visitors. Seventy-eight percent of these visits are for the webcams, which
allow people to watch numerous animal exhibits in real time, including penguins, sea
otters, sharks, and jellyfish.
As an adjunct to the webcams, the Aquarium offers guided meditations so that people
may experience animals in a calming way. The MeditOcean series provides 10- to
15-minute mindfulness experiences featuring visuals of the Aquarium’s residents.
The Aquarium is also hard at work behind the scenes, inspiring ocean conservation.
Its Conservation and Science Division continues publishing papers, working with
legislators on issues such as climate change, and partnering with like-minded
organizations to promote mindful stewardship.
The Aquarium is also hard at work behind the scenes, inspiring ocean conservation. Its Conservation and Science Division continues publishing papers, working with legislators on issues such as climate change, and partnering with like-minded organizations to promote mindful stewardship. The Aquarium is one of the leaders of the Aquarium Conservation Partnership, a collaboration of Association of Zoos & Aquariums-accredited public aquariums across North America, committed to advancing conservation and advocacy of the world’s oceans, lakes, and rivers. “We take on issues such as plastic pollution in the ocean and lobby elected officials to create legislation to promote those causes. We founded it with National Aquarium in Baltimore and Shedd Aquarium,” says Vernon.
Its flagship conservation program, Seafood Watch, remains an integral part of the
Aquarium’s mission. Seafood Watch provides scientific underpinnings regarding
which seafood and aquaculture products people should or should not choose, based
on sustainability. “We work in other countries to provide more sustainable seafood
and culture,” says Vernon. “We have a new Seafood Watch website. It’s more userfriendly and robust.” The program can be uploaded onto mobile devices or accessed
Perhaps the most exciting development for the Aquarium is its upcoming Into the
Deep exhibit. Spanning 20,000 square feet and taking up much of the lower floor
of the Open Sea Wing, Into the Deep will be the first major US exhibition of deepsea animals, and will include giant spider crabs and giant isopods. The Aquarium is
working closely on this project with its partner organization Monterey Bay Aquarium
Research Institute. Guests have something to look forward to in spring of 2022.
In a typical year, visitors to the Aquarium fund nearly all the facility’s operating costs.
But with no visitors since mid-March 2020, the consequence is a $55 million deficit
and a 38 percent decrease in staff. To continue operating the Aquarium—which
houses 80,000 animals and plants in complex life-support systems—and supporting
pertinent research and conservation efforts, it has relied more heavily on membership
“When we are allowed to reopen, we will be one of the safest places you can visit. We
have so many safety protocols in place,” shares Vernon, a spark in her voice. “We are
looking forward to welcoming on-site visitors.”
In the meantime, we can keep the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s mission alive by
understanding the critical role we each play in supporting a healthy world. Whether
through environmental advocacy, taking classes, practicing mindful actions,
connecting to nature more often, or donating, together we can conserve for a healthy
To support the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which was ineligible for the initial federal aid to offset hardships due to COVID-19, visit MontereyBayAquarium.org