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New Exploration Center is Not an Aquarium But Teaches About the Ocean

Santa Cruz's new Exploration Center opened Monday near the wharf, where the old skate park used to be.

After two years of construction, the brand new Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center opened its doors to the public on Monday.

Although some were disappointed not to find live marine animals within its sleek new walls, the facility is impressive, with state-of-the-art displays and a focus on interactive exhibits.

"What we're trying to do with this facility is teach people that there's a lot more to be seen out there in the bay than what they see on the surface," said Larry Bidinian, one of 45 volunteers who graduated the center's docent program.

Located just steps from the wharf, where the skate park used to be, the new Exploration Center is a two-story, 12,387 square foot LEED certified building.

Outside on the second story observation deck, visitors can look through the telescope at slides of what the view would look like if the Monterey Bay Sanctuary, founded in 1982, was not protecting the coast line—the slide shows ugly oil tankers and high rises which obscure the view of the bay.

Inside the facility, kids can climb into the cross-section of a drainage pipe to watch a screen about how the watershed effects the ocean. They can watch giant humpback whales on film, opperate a tiny underwater exploration robot, walk through a virtual kelp forest and help a virtual sea turtle dodge plastic bags and eat jelly fish instead. 

Of the 700 people who came through to see the new facility, a large portion were kids.

"We're going to come back," said Zoe Namaste, 13, of Santa Cruz. "I liked everything."

Zoe Namaste visited the Exploration Center with two siblings who told Patch that they had learned about sound waves and robots used to explore the ocean, and that rockfish can live to be 400 years old.

But other visitors were disappointed that the Exploration Center wasn't a miniature version of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

"I thought there was going to be marine life here, there's not a single marine animal here. It was kind of like getting all excited to go to Disney Land and then getting there and having it be closed," said one visitor who wished to remain anonymous as "a Santa Cruz local." 

The reasoning behind the lack of marine life is economic. The facility cost $14.8 million to design and furnish—$11.44 of that came from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, (NOAA), while the city of Santa Cruz and its Economic Development and Redevelopment Agency contributed the land, staff time, and city art. 

"That would be very expensive and very high maintenance and for a place that's free admission it would have been tough," said Lisa Uttal, the Center's Director of NOAA.

Dr. Wallace J Nichols, a research associate at the California Academy of Sciences, and a marine biologist, brought his two young daughters to the facility on Monday. He hopes the facility will help people get more involved in the ocean, and thinks it's a beautiful addition to the boardwalk and the wharf, which he says attract a lot of visitors but are more like "cartoons of Santa Cruz."

"You can’t take the ocean inside anywhere, even in film, it still falls far, far short of the real thing," said Nichols. "I think what the center does is it reminds people of the real experiences that they’ve had, or it lets them know about the real experiences that they can have in the Monterey Bay." 

The Exploration Center is expected to serve 150,000 visitors annually, and will remain free to visitors. 

"Our whole economy rests on the health of the ocean, Santa Cruz economy especially. This is a way to help people take better care of the basis of our entire economy," said Nichols.  

The Exploration Center will be open Wednesday - Sunday from 10 a.m - 5 p.m. 

Have you visited the Exploration Center? Do you think it's a good addition to Santa Cruz's beachfront? Tell us in the Comments!

Maria Grusauskas July 25, 2012 at 04:58 PM
Thank you for your comments. This place is definitely still worth checking out especially if you have kids.
Shawn Butchko July 25, 2012 at 06:24 PM
I was relieved to discover that there are no live fish in this aquarium. I used to see the fish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and Marine World, and felt bad about all the fish/animals in captivity, thinking, "They can't possibly be happy, all cooped up like this." So, I was really happy yesterday, to see that Santa Cruz did not do that. Also, the movie about how the elephant seals, sea otters, whales, and sardines became almost extinct, and brought back, thanks to the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary, brought tears to mine eyes. High five, Santa Cruz! Shawn
Maria Grusauskas July 25, 2012 at 09:49 PM
Thanks Shawn! Yeah I think the whole point of the Exploration Center is to let people know that the bay they're looking at isn't just any piece of the Pacific Ocean. It's a protected sanctuary, and it's a unique habitat with a massive upwelling of nutrients coming from the deep trench that runs through the center of the bay.. there is abundant sea life in the monterey bay and maybe one day it can be restored to be as abundant as it was when Steinbeck wrote about..
Ocean Activist July 26, 2012 at 04:31 PM
I think the Exploration Center is a cool addition to the Santa Cruz beach front. It is state of the art, hands on, and very educational. Good for kids and adults alike! The Exploration Center takes a great step toward spreading the word that it is our ocean and we need to take care of it!
Brady August 04, 2012 at 07:53 AM
For $11 million in taxpayer money, couldn't they have put in just one medium-sized fish tank? The whole thing was kind of disappointing. The big tank is murky and you can't see the bottom. The exhibits are repetitive and preachy. There's not much about the human history of Monterey Bay. And the center offers almost nothing to help direct visitors from out of town on where to go to surf, kayak, fish or enjoy other amenities of the bay. I had high hopes for this place. But on a scale of 1-10, it's a 4.

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