We spent the day in Monterey, 90% of it at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I’d been to Monterey a couple times before, but had never made it to the aquarium; it’s truly extraordinary. It’s one of these modern aquariums that has the standard small tanks, but the showstoppers are several gigantic, multi-story… well, tanks doesn’t quite do them justice. An enclosed space large enough to contain a kelp forest, or a hundred fish (including a dozen open-water sharks), is something else. An aquatic skyscraper.
The most extraordinary thing there was an exhibit on jellyfish. I was skeptical, but it turned out to be a masterpiece of minimalist design: a gigantic dark room, dark blue backgrounds in the tanks (no fake dioramas), and lighting that threw the jellyfish into sharp relief and brought out their structure. Seen this way, they were really beautiful. Of course, I still don’t want to be stung by the mindless bastards.
Monterey is the only town in California I can think of whose existence as a tourist destination is totally dependent on a work of fiction. Of course, the place bears absolutely no relationship to the Monterey of Steinbeck; that world ended in the 1950s, when the sardine population suffered a catastrophic collapse, hollowing out downtown Carmel as effectively as a neutron bomb. Indeed, I suspect that the speed of the industry’s decline helped preserve Cannery Row– it didn’t have quite as much time to go to Hell the way factory towns usually do– and hence pave the way for its rebirth as a tourist signifier pointing to a literary sign.