MONTEREY, Calif.--Given that it's probably the world's best aquarium, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has a long list of attractions that leave visitors smiling and talking afterwards. But ask a lot of those visitors what their favorite is, and they'll say without hesitating, "the otters."
And why not? Sea otters are among the most adorable marine creatures around, evincing a keen intelligence and a lot of personality, and seem determined to please their many fans.
As part of Road Trip 2012, CNET's Daniel Terdiman spent a recent day at the aquarium getting a behind-the-scenes tour. And a special look at one of the otters' daily feedings was top of the list of the day's accomplishments.
Other highlights (see later in this slideshow) included visits with the people running the jellyfish laboratories, a look at how the aquarium uses remote operated vehicles (ROVs) in its giant Open Sea tank, some amazing seahorses, and more.
These are sea nettles, part of the Monterey Bay Aquarium's huge collection of jellyfish. As the aquarium puts it, "A sea nettle is well armed for capturing food," reads a sign at the aquarium. "See those wispy tentacles? They fire thousands of tiny stinging cells that paralyze prey. Then the jelly transfers its catch to those frilly mouth-arms and finally to its mouth, where the jelly eats its meal."
There are many cases where it is either impractical or inefficient for the aquarium to send divers into its large Open Sea tank to take care of a task. For example, if there is a Great White Shark in the tank, and staffers need to rescue a sick animal, or pick something up that's been dropped in, it can sometimes take too long to get three divers decked out in full chain mail suits.
Fortunately, the aquarium has this remote-operated vehicle (ROV), which can be sent under water to shoot live video, grab something that's fallen in, or even capture a sick -- or dead -- animal.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium has three resident sea otters. Over the years, it has also taken in hundreds of wild otters who have been brought in injured, sick, or for other reasons, rehabilitated them, and put them back into nature.
Here, two of the three resident otters rub backs during one of their daily feedings.
Sea otters can multi-task. This one is enjoying its afternoon meal, while also holding on to one of its many toys. The aquarists who care for the otters have to keep them constantly busy and engaged -- be it with toys, play, training, or something else. Bored otters can be destructive otters.
One of the three resident otters floats alongside the glass barrier through which aquarium visitors can watch them playing, and being fed. The two girls pressed up against the glass seem not to have noticed their potential new friend.
In addition to their normal daily feedings, the otters are sometimes given additional nutrients in the form of a frozen tube like this one. Since the food isn't immediately available, the otters spend quite some time playing with the tubes, which look like anything from flotation tubes to beer bongs to snorkels.
Sea Otter "aquarist" Hannah Ban-Weiss throws a bit of food to Abby the otter during one of the creatures' several daily feedings. Each day, the aquarium's otters eat about a third of their body weight, since they have incredibly fast metabolisms.
During the feeding, one of the aquarists encourages this otter to check out the interior of a carrying case. The idea is to give the creature entirely positive reinforcement that the case is something she'll like so that if it is ever necessary to transport her -- if she's sick or injured, for example -- she won't be terrified by being put inside, and may even choose to get inside the case when she sees it.
Each day, the aquarium invites the public to view three public sea otter feedings. But on an average day, the creatures will likely be fed as many as five times. However, in order to keep the animals from getting complacent, that number changes from day to day.
A group of moon jellies float in a tank at the entrance to the aquarium's jellyfish attractions.
According to the aquarium, "These alien-looking creatures are named for their translucent, moonlike circular bells. Instead of long, trailing tentacles, moon jellies have a short, fine fringe (cilia) that sweeps food toward the mucous layer on the edges of the bells. Prey is stored in pouches until the oral arms pick it up and begin to digest it.
"The coloration of a moon jelly often changes depending on its diet. If the jelly feeds extensively on crustaceans, it turns pink or lavender. An orange tint hints that a jelly’s been feeding on brine shrimp.
"Scientists have studied the life cycle of this jelly extensively. They know the adult male moon jelly releases strands of sperm, which are ingested by female moon jellies. After fertilization, larvae settle on or near the seafloor and grow into polyps. Polyps alternate between feeding and reproductive stages for up to 25 years. In the reproductive phase, polyps launch buds of cloned juveniles, known as ephyrae, which grow into adult medusae.
"Found worldwide in temperate and tropical waters, moon jellies feed in quiet bays and harbors. Although moon jellies have a sting, they pose little threat to humans."
These are crown jellies, which have never been shown publicly before. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, "These are unlike any jellies we've had previously, with beautiful, purple colors and an array of 'spikes' emanating from the broad, four-inch, circular bell."
The aquarium says that many "institutes have tried, [but] ours was the first to unlock the secret of raising crown jelly polyps to adulthood. The biggest challenge? Simulating the pelagic (open-ocean) environment to which the species is accustomed.
These are blubber jellies. According to the aquarium, the species, also called blue jellies, "comes in colors ranging from very light blue to dark purple and burgundy, and its bell pulses in a distinctive, staccato-like rhythm."
A leafy sea dragon, in the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seahorses exhibit. This seahorse cousin, known as a Leafy sea dragon, can be incredibly hard to see. It has bulging yellow eyes, and disguises itself as seaweed with its many leaflike fins.
This is a Weedy sea dragon, at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. "This astonishing animal defied imagination," a sign reads. "You might never guess it's related to seahorses, with that strange shape and cloak of iridescent colors. How can you tell this fish from its close relative, the Leafy sea dragon? The Weedy sea dragon wears short, stubby fins compared to its more flamboyant cousin."
As a sign at the aquarium puts it, "A bewildering blend of beasts, [the Zebrasnout] seahorse wears the noble head of a horse, the grasping tail of a monkey, the rotating eyes of a chameleon, and the protective pouch of a kangaroo. To uncover its true identity, examine the black stripes on its snout."
According to Monterey Bay Aquarium curator Steve Vogel, the gear that goes along with the ROV allows him to capture video on a digital video recorder. Later, he or his team can watch it in their offices. Or, they can watch it live on the monitor.
A look at the aquarium's kelp forest tank. The kelp is capable of growing as much as eight inches a day, while kelp in nature -- for example, in the Monterey Bay just outside the aquarium -- can grow as much as a foot a day.
As the feeding is a public exhibition, the diver -- who is wearing a microphone -- explains that plastic that makes its way into the world's oceans is incredibly toxic to fish, but that the animals often eat it anyway.