Sunday, May 20, 2012

Morro Bay Aquarium -- What's the future?

Our local independent weekly, New Times, featured Morro Bay Aquarium on its front page this week.

It’s been called “Morro Bay Seal Penitentiary,” “Seal Guantanamo,” “the worst aquarium in the world,” “torture chamber,” “fish dungeon,” and “the saddest aquarium on Earth.”
In the dimly lit room of the Morro Bay Aquarium, a woman wiped away tears as she passed one of about a dozen tanks.

After passing through the gift shop, visitors to the Morro Bay Aquarium can spend $2 to visit a harbor seal, sea lions, and a variety of aquatic creatures floating in tanks that bear disclaimers such as, “This particular eel likes to lay on his side. He has been doing this for months.”
“These animals belong in the ocean,” she muttered.
There wasn’t anything special about this visitor; she just happened to be one of about a dozen people who paid the $2 entrance fee and spent a recent Saturday at the aquarium.
The Morro Bay Aquarium looks like a living anachronism, harkening to a time when aquatic animals could be put on display like circus attractions. You can hear the bellows and barks from the parking lot, or the occasional smacking sound of a sea lion slapping its flipper against its side and begging for sardines flung by gawking tourists. The noise echoes behind the chain-link fence and barbed wire.
Qualifiers seem common at the Morro Bay Aquarium, the type of place where animals are frequently mislabeled and sometimes excused in writing.
“Wolf Eel is not a very active ocean creature,” reads a bright orange sign pasted to the side of one hexagonal tank. “This particular eel likes to lay on his side. He has been doing this for months.”
Many of the non-mammalian animals lay listlessly in their tanks. An eel rested at the bottom of its metal enclosure, staring blankly through the glass.
The entrance to the aquarium is actually a gift shop, fronted by doors smeared with novelty bumper stickers: Glittery gung-ho “America Born Free” stickers are displayed next to others like “Praise God,” “Plan Ahead Repent!,” and “Save A Whale harpoon a fat chick” as well as “Save A Whale harpoon a fat dude.”

Two dollars will grant any visitor access, and another 50 cents purchases a small paper bag of fish parts to feed the animals. Past a swinging porthole door, visitors are greeted by an up-close encounter with three belching and cackling California sea lions and one silent harbor seal. Maggie, the oldest sea lion (she’ll turn 25 this July), is by far the crowd favorite. Smacking a flipper at her side to attract tourists, she spends much of her time splayed out on one of a few wooden platforms that have been bolted to the wall and perched above each of the three shallow pools, none of them any larger than your average backyard Doughboy pool. 

The story continues, but you get the picture. It's a troubling story, but one I hope will have a happy ending. Following is the letter I sent to the newspaper, with copies to other parties: John Alcorn is the current operator.
To all concerned parties:

Morro Bay Aquarium has our full attention now. With its focus on commercial fishing and tourism, Morro Bay is the ideal community to improve this site. Let's get together and do it. Mr. Alcorn, are you willing?

Morro Bay's resources for fishing and marine mammals are among the best anywhere. Sausalito's Marine Mammal Center has an outpost facility here. They rescue stranded elephant seals, among other critters, which are the focus of Friends of the Elephant Seal. For seals in trouble, this is the place to get help.

Morro Bay Aquarium is located on a premium piece of Embarcadero property. Tourists can't help finding it as they stroll along the harbor. Mayor Yates, what can the city do to improve this business? Harbor Director Endersby, how can these community organizations work with the city and the business to create a win-win?

Let's brainstorm: How else could this property be used? What would make it even more inviting to your customers, Mr. Alcorn? Perhaps it could be converted into a display for rehabilitated wildlife from Pacific Wildlife Care that can't be released to the wild?

Could those tanks become an educational display for Morro Bay's ecology? Could the Natural History Museum work with them on creating something special, unique and exciting? Cal Poly's Engineering Department has stepped up to help the community on other occasions. Can you help, Cal Poly? Or refer this effort to other resources? Could the Civilian Conservation Corps play a role?

When the aquarium was built, it was with good intentions. That was years ago. When we know better, we do better. This is an opportunity to showcase a local business and the way our community works together to help each other.


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