Seeing the Sad Animals at America's Worst Aquarium Broke My Heart
From miserable seals to motionless fish, California's Morro Bay Aquarium is utterly depressing.
All photos by the author
The Morro Bay Aquarium, on California's Central Coast, is scheduled to close in September of this year. Open since the 60s, the aquarium is a relic of a simpler time in our history. A time when animals existed to either feed or entertain humans, and few shits were given about their well-being.
It landed on my radar after a co-worker sent me a link to its Yelp page. The reason he sent me this was because the picture painted of the aquarium through its reviews is, well, pretty dark.
One Yelp user referred to the attraction as "the saddest place I have ever seen." Another called it "the most depressing place in California." Someone else warned that "it will ruin your whole day." Another said that it will "give you nightmares." One person called it "seal Guantanamo."
I made the drive up to Morro Bay late last year to check it out for myself.
The aquarium is made up of just two rooms—one containing pinnipeds (a seal and two sea lions), the other containing smaller sea creatures in tanks. It costs $3 to enter with the option of paying an extra $.50 for some fish to feed to the animals.
The larger animals were kept in what could generously be described as "pits"—lowered pools that were covered with algae. Signs on a wire fence surrounding them warned visitors not to get too close, as they might get scratched or have their bags snatched.
The sound inside was almost unbearable. Each time a person entered the room, the two sea lions would try to get their attention, presumably in an attempt to get food. One would bark, and the other would make that croaking sound the little ghost kid makes in The Grudge.
When there was no one around that might potentially feed them, one of the sea lions stared at the door, and the other swam in the same circle over and over and over again. The seal didn't really do anything for the duration of my visit.
The fish room was so bleak it felt as though each design decision had been specifically made to maximize its misery. The only light in the room came from the animal's brutalist, neon-lit tanks; a terrifying model of a whale sat grinning in a corner; TV screens on the walls played footage of the aquarium's staff collecting signatures for a petition opposing increased aquarium regulations; a dusty case sat at one end of the room, filled with bones, organs, and taxidermied bodies.
The sadness was so obvious and over the top that if you were to pitch photos of it as set designs for the Penguin's lair in a Christopher Nolan Batman movie, they would be rejected for being too on the nose.
The fish themselves were, for the most part, motionless. Just kind of suspended in their tanks, staring out at the world. I don't think I've ever assigned a complex emotion to a fish before, but they looked sad.
The only decoration in the fish's tanks were pebbles, pipes, and cinder blocks. Despite the fact that this place has been open for over 50 years, it seems nobody ever made the effort to drive to PetSmart and drop $10 on a little Easter Island head or a castle or something to make the place a touch less nightmarey.
Which is to say, the place was pretty bleak. Like, bleak in a I want to think of something as clever as "Seal Guantanamo" and leave it in a one-star Yelp review kinda way. I left the aquarium feeling thoroughly bummed out.
But I am very sensitive when it comes to animals. I haven't eaten one (intentionally) in about 17 years. And the last time I accidentally ate meat, I ended up google-imaging "cute chickens" on my phone and crying in the restaurant.
I figured it probably wasn't entirely outside of the realm of possibility that I was being overly sensitive, and projecting emotions onto creatures that are perfectly fine. None of the other visitors I saw while I was at the aquarium seemed too upset.
To find out if I was just being a baby, I reached out to Dr. Naomi Rose, a marine mammal specialist at the Animal Welfare Institute. Turns out, I wasn't. "Of all the facilities that are operating in the States right now that hold marine mammals," she told me, "they are the worst."
According to Rose, in the 25 years that she's been working in her field, she's received more complaints about Morro Bay Aquarium than any other aquarium in the country. "It is extremely outdated," she said. "[The aquarium is in] a constant state of deterioration. The concrete is crumbling, the algae build up, and rust... It's just so outdated and so low tech and so inappropriate to hold marine mammals in that kind of enclosure anymore that it genuinely boggles my mind."
Similarly, my assessment of the mood of the fish seems to be an accurate one. I sent photos of the aquarium's tanks to Culum Brown, a fish biologist at Macquarie University in Sydney. He told me that the conditions seemed "just horrid."
"The fish do not seem to be in good condition," he told me by email. "Healthy, happy fish would have fins up and would be moving around the environment. Clearly there is nothing for them to do in these conditions, no doubt they are depressed and probably stressed."
He suggested that a more appropriate environment would be one that replicates the animals' natural environments: "Make it structurally complex [with] places for them to hide if need be, and preferably allow for some social interactions."
So how is a place so cartoonishly heinous still open in 2018?
Well, the facility is operating legally and above board. When it closes in September, it won't be because of animal welfare, but rather because the aquarium's 50 year lease is expiring and the owners were unable to reach an agreement with the city to renew it.
Local news outlet KSBY reported that, in an inspection in October 2016, the aquarium was deemed to be fully compliant with federal regulations. According to Rose, the issue isn't so much that Morro Bay isn't up to code, but that it is up to code.
Acceptable standards of care for US aquariums are dictated by the Animal Welfare Act—a federal law enacted in 1966 that details the minimum standards facilities like Morro Bay must meet. Rose called these standards "outdated" and "weak."
"[The] space requirements have not been updated since 1984," said Rose. "Marine mammal science has advanced exponentially in the the past 33 years, it’s advanced in the last 15 years [...] The idea that keeping them in those little boxes is appropriate for these beings who travel great distances both horizontally and vertically is ludicrous."
Despite having what one USDA inspector called an "an alarming mortality rate of captive born animals," the majority of Animal Welfare Act violations the aquarium has been cited for have been for relatively trivial things, like failing to keep daily food consumption records, or not having a proper area for medical treatment.
The aquarium has been run by the same family since it opened. First by married couple Dean and Bertha Tyler, and currently by their grandson, John Alcorn. I reached out to Alcorn, but he declined to comment or be interviewed, saying he was sick of people writing negative stories about the aquarium. So it's not clear whether any attempt to improve the facility have been made.
From looking at photos and videos of the aquarium online, it seems the only recent change is the removal of signs that suggested that the aquarium is a rehabilitation facility. These signs were taken down after an animal rights group sent the aquarium a cease-and-desist letter.
But luckily, this is the aquarium's final year. There's no word on what will happen to the animals once the facility closes. As they're captive animals, they will probably be relocated to another facility, rather than released.
Times are changing. SeaWorld San Diego is phasing out orca shows, Ringling Brothers has closed for good, and more people are vegan than ever before. Hopefully the animals from Morro Bay end up somewhere a bit nicer.
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