Step Back in Time at Morro Bay Aquarium

28 Feb


  • The Aquarium has been on the Embarcadero for 51 years
  • Some of the seals hail from the Sunshine State
  • Over 100 specimens await visitors

The Morro Bay Aquarium is hard to miss; if the sea-foam green signs don’t catch your eye, the barking seals will certainly grab your attention. Passersby often throw curious glances towards the brown building, clearly intrigued by the splashing and laughing from within.

“The Morro Bay Aquarium went into construction in 1959 and it was completed in 1960,” director John Alcorn said on a warm winter morning by the bay. Little has changed since then, and that’s something the aquarium is proud of.

“This is the way most of the aquariums used to look way back–that’s way before Sea World and all that,” Alcorn said. Visitors enter through the gift shop–a space not unlike many of the other tourist dives along the Embarcadero–before plunging through a port-holed door to the seal enclosure. It’s a tight, loud space, where a handful of seals bark and play.

For fifty cents, visitors can purchase a bag of sardines to feed the seals.

“All the seals and everything are all rehabbed animals,” Alcorn said, adding that the aquarium no longer places as much focus on rehabilitation. Morro Bay is host to a number of wildlife and marine rehabilitation centers, which Alcorn said are much better equipped than the aquarium to handle animals in need. “A lot of the money that comes from here goes to a lot of those places,” he said. “The money is for the animals.”

Owner Dean Tyler, who entered the gift shop in his signature white aquarium jumpsuit, explained that since the Morro Bay Aquarium funded all of its own rehabilitation efforts, it soon became too much of a burden to keep up with the influx of mega-aquariums and independent rehab facilities. “We used to rehab,” he said, “but of course after the Monterey Aquarium got built, they had so many people–a lot of help, see, and a lot of money.”

In the decades since the aquarium opened, Alcorn estimated that they have released over 300 seals back into the wild or moved to other aquariums. “They come from all over,” he said. “Three of the ones we have right now came from Sea World in Florida.”

Dean Tyler bought the aquarium in the early 1960s.

For many seals, the aquarium is their permanent home. “The ones that are brought down to the bottom and are put on display,” Alcorn explained as the seals raucously barked behind him, “are there because it’s been determined that they can’t survive on their own.”

While the seals are clearly the stars of the show, the aquarium hosts a number of other sea life, from anemones to lobsters to rare fish. “There are over a hundred different specimens,” Alcorn explained, most of which are brought in by local fishermen.

A number of tanks line the walls of the cool, dark aquarium interior. Here, visitors can get face-to-face with eels and colorful fish. Colorado residents Holly and Bryan Edgington enjoy the simplicity of the aquarium. “I’ve been coming here since I was a little kid,” Holly said. “I think it’s awesome. It’s nostalgic. These kinds of things they don’t have much of anymore.”

Tyler agreed, noting that, “A lot of businesses don’t last fifty years.” It’s not difficult to see where that success stems from. “Because we were established a long time ago, before some of the rules got enforced, you can still feed the seals, and people like that,” he explained. “Most of the other places, they don’t let you feed them anymore. And then of course, because we own it, we keep the prices down. You can’t do nothing for two dollars anymore!”

“One of the things I really like is–you see an older person who hasn’t had a good belly laugh in a long time–they’ll go in there and the seals will splash water on them, and they have to have fun. That’s kind of rewarding to me.” -Dean Tyler

To Alcorn, the aquarium is perhaps most special for what it is not. This is the anti-aquarium, a place that doesn’t exactly dazzle and entertain so much as evoked a bygone era. The tang of fish, splash of the seals and weathered tanks and portholes might just convince visitors that they’re in an older Morro Bay. “It’s one of four [aquariums] left on the west coast that kind of started the industry,” Alcorn said. “It’s really a historical spot.”

Visit the Morro Bay Aquarium any day of the week at 595 Embarcadero, Morro Bay, or call at(805)772-7647.

One Response to “Step Back in Time at Morro Bay Aquarium”

  1. geo October 18, 2011 at 2:19 am #


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