Monterey has a rather shopworn air; even on a typical sunlit California coast day in August it seemed a bit sparsely populated. I was on a very civilised road trip with three friends; Nokia Jon and Rebecca the animal expert were Mum and Dad in the front seats, while Jacqui and I were the kids fighting in the back. The vehicle was a big white Jeep something, Cherokee perhaps, with a four-litre straight six and no poke whatsoever. If you nailed the pedal, the car took a while to notice, went What ? Oh, lurched and began to accelerate reluctantly. It was OK once it was up to speed and the cruise control was on, provided the driver didn’t fall asleep, and thankfully it had air con. Alamo at San Francisco airport didn’t have any convertibles left; we agreed after only a day that the Jeep was a better bet. United at San Francisco airport didn’t have my bag; it followed us down the coast for a couple of days, finally catching up with us at a not-bad hotel in Morro Bay with an excellent view of the power station. Did I mention that it was a civilised trip ? Jon e-mailed me the itinerary in an Excel file.
The town seems to lean somewhat on its Steinbeck legacy without investing too heavily in it. There’s a wax museum which Jon and I refused to enter (although Rebecca and Jacqui said it was pretty good) and Cannery Row is...well, it’s there. The aquarium, though, that’s spectacular, and seemed to be the main attraction, mostly for family groups. Real families, not our little circus troupe. In we went, lured by the promise of sea otters; you’ve probably seen them on TV, the ones that float on their backs with shellfish on their chests, which they then batter with rocks. Clever buggers, and irresistibly cute, but what I hadn’t realised was that they’re huge, like big shaggy dogs. The scrum to watch them being fed was fierce; a big window let us see them zipping and twisting under the water, then climbing out of the pool to hassle the keeper. I took my usual position at the back of the crowd, only to find that by Californian standards I’m not all that tall.
The cuttlefish observed the punters intently, with a look of enormous intelligence. I showed it my opposable thumbs but it just changed colour. Deep inside the building was a tank so big it disappeared into darkness at the back; if you looked at the right angle you could see the layers of lamination in the glass, which looked like it could stop a bulldozer. Small sharks, including a tiny hammerhead, and rays cruised about nonchalantly while muscular, rigid-looking tuna sped around, flicking their dorsal fins in and out of slots in their backs. It was quiet in there; all the kids, who I’d expected to be pining for their Playstations, were mesmerised, whether by the sheer scale of the thing or the smooth, alien movement beyond the glass I don’t know.
A round room had a ring-shaped tank in the wall, above head height, circling the entire space. A densely-packed school of mackerel hurtled round it, occasionally darting off down a tunnel towards, presumably, a more conventional habitat.
But the thing that really got the kids – and us – was the jellyfish room. Identical round windows showed nothing but a rich blue background; the lighting was hidden, the tanks considerably bigger than the windows, allowing their occupants to drift in and out of view, illuminated so as to show their clear forms refracting the light into rainbows. The ones I remember best were the little gooseberries, their tentacles so fine they became invisible when spread, only appearing when the creatures pushed ahead and the strands fell into line behind them. Rows of cilia on their hollow bodies pulsed spectra. If the cuttlefish was inscrutable, these tiny, transparent characters were completely unknowable. But they were going somewhere, for something.