Shiny pelagic fish known as lookdowns are a crowd favorite at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. They have super-thin silhouettes and exaggerated dorsal fins. (Patricia Yollin/KQED)
MONTEREY -- You don't expect to encounter a desert tortoise when you go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. But you'll see two of them lumbering around in a new exhibition on Baja California.
"They've been crawling all over each other and everything else," said Paul Clarkson, curator of husbandry operations, who added that the reptiles have been extremely popular with visitors.
"Some species just resonate," he said. "Some are slam dunks."
"¡Viva Baja! Life on the Edge" features fully terrestrial animals -- including assorted lizards, a tarantula, a scorpion and a snake -- for the first time in the aquarium's 32-year history. There are plenty of fish and invertebrates, too.
The $3.8 million exhibition, which will run at least two years, explores life in Baja California's coastal deserts, mangrove forests and coral reefs.
"Baja is a unique and special place," said Raúl Nava, senior exhibit developer and writer at the aquarium. "It's an amazing land of contrasts."
When work on the exhibition began, the aquarium staff used focus groups, questionnaires and on-site interviews to find out how much visitors knew about Baja, a narrow 800-mile-long peninsula in northwestern Mexico.
"One thing that was pretty surprising was that they didn't know a lot," Nava said. "Some people didn't realize that Baja is our neighbor directly to the south. They didn't conceptualize that it's literally attached to California and recognize the connection that we share."
When they considered Baja at all, they thought of spring break in Cabo San Lucas or drunken college kids going off to Tijuana. "They didn't associate it with a stunning diversity of life," Nava said. "We wanted to take it beyond the bash."
He said Baja was even a mystery to the aquarium's many Spanish-speaking patrons -- often with roots on Mexico's mainland, especially Oaxaca and Jalisco.
"For most people there, it's like the wild frontier," Nava said. "Like the way we think about Alaska."
On a recent weekday morning, the exhibition, which opened March 19, was flooded with visitors. There was a lot of commotion in the first gallery, "Near the Edge," which is devoted to the Sonoran Desert.
"Mommy, Mommy, look at the turtles!" a little boy screamed at first sight of a big centerpiece exhibit housing iguanas, common chuckwallas and desert tortoises, which are frequently mistaken for turtles.
"He's trying to eat that lizard," shrieked one small girl. In point of fact, none of the desert dwellers were consuming each other, but there was a great deal of activity, especially by reptilian standards.
"¡Viva Baja! Life on the Edge" includes three main galleries housing 18 live displays and several interactive ones, such as “Rainbow Reefs,” where visitors can color a coral reef fish on a touch screen, launch it into a digital fish tank and email the image to themselves as a souvenir.
Nearly 100 species -- obtained from other institutions, commercial collectors and the wild -- will rotate through the exhibition. A companion film details the migration of gray whales, brown pelicans and elephant seals to Baja.
Nava is enjoying the aquarium's "first crawl onto land," as he put it, especially the tortoises.
"They're so personable," he said, using an adjective not often applied to tortoises. "I can relate to them some days."
They've been way more active than anyone anticipated, Clarkson said. In the wild, they spend much of their time dealing with temperature extremes and drought, struggling for access to food and water, and hiding under rocks. In the aquarium, there's no need to worry about any of that.
One of the hardest things to predict when a show opens is which exhibits and animals will appeal to people, Clarkson said. Although it's no surprise that the tortoises are a crowd favorite, it turns out that a colony of garden eels is also a top contender. They are improbable creatures. At first it's hard to tell if they're even alive -- they could pass for vegetation -- but they're increasingly hypnotic the longer you look at them.
"Man, we've had people who have been parked there for 10 or 15 minutes at a stretch, just sitting there and watching those goofballs," Clarkson said. "They are the height of bizarre. People walk up and say, 'What am I looking at? Is it grass, is it algae, is it a snake, is it a worm?' Lots of worm comments. But it's a fish. It's every bit a fish. Just an unusual fish."
The slender and large-eyed eels, embedded in the makeshift sea floor on the bottom of their tank, wriggled and swayed, rarely retreating into their burrows. "You can get within inches of them," said Marie Henley, a volunteer stationed at the exhibit. "That would never happen in nature."
Spectators acted like it was a sporting event. "Oh my God, they're fighting!" "Are they stuck there?" "Look, they're hugging." "No, they're not!"
For a lot of people, just reading the names of some species was sheer fun: the chocolate chip star, the convict surgeonfish, the Moorish idol, the Panamic fanged blenny.
And then there's the rockmover wrasse. "There was an event the other night with guests who watched this fish for 15 minutes at a shot," Clarkson said. "It would pick up sand dollar shells, rocks, clamshells, and move them around for the entire evening, like a perpetually unhappy housekeeper, where it's never quite right. The jawfish does similar things, but it's more precise. It seems to have a plan."
The diversity of animals is much greater than in "Tentacles," the aquarium's current exhibition of cephalopods, Clarkson said.
"It's this different world right across the border from us," he said.
And there's plenty of action if you look long enough. A bluespotted jawfish shovels out mouthfuls of sand. Common chuckwallas use each other as step stools in a rock-climbing marathon. A scorpion glows green -- a study in fluorescence.
In the second gallery, "At the Edge," a mangrove forest resembles a day-care center, with all sorts of young fish darting here and there, including the porcupinefish, Nava's favorite. "They're just so animated, so inquisitive," he said. "Everyone's focused on baby otters right now (born in a tidepool outside the aquarium), but these are a lot cuter."
Baja California is one of the most heavily funded areas in the world by organizations focused on conservation and the environment, Nava said, and the government is also making strides.
"We wanted to highlight the work being done by people in Mexico to protect it," he said. "In our initial analysis, there was a negative perception of Baja that Mexico and Mexicans aren't focused on conservation like the United States is. We wanted to dispel that myth and show that people are taking action."
Baja's fragile ecosystems need all the help they can get. They're threatened by overfishing, coastal development, habitat destruction, drought and water diversion, exemplified by the damming of the Colorado River, which used to empty into the Gulf of California. But the river delta is now dried up, which has been disastrous for wetlands, farmers and migratory birds.
One exhibit features a totoaba, a fish so homely that you'd figure it would be left alone. However, it's prized in traditional Chinese medicine, which means its swim bladder brings top dollar. And then there's the vaquita, a small porpoise found only in the Gulf of California that is the world's most endangered marine mammal. The vaquita is too rare to put in an appearance in Monterey, so a video in the exhibition details its plight.
"There are fewer than 100 left in the wild," Nava said. "But it's not just doom and gloom. Protection works -- look at the gray whale. We've done it before and we can do it again, if we act quickly. Some biologists consider this the most important conservation story in the world right now."
Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is involved in several active research projects and partnerships in Baja, focused on the peninsula in the late 1980s, with its "Mexico's Secret Sea" show, but did not venture onto land.
The new exhibition, from a design perspective, presented interesting challenges, said Koen Liem, manager of exhibition design at the aquarium.
"Foremost, how to condense such vast subject matter into a concise exhibition story," he said. "The 'on the edge' theme created a good framework for both the geographic and conservation stories we wanted to tell."
The third gallery goes "Over the Edge" into the realm of coral reefs. A particularly engaging exhibit is a tank teeming with lookdowns, which are fish that seem to gaze downward as they swim.
"They're my second-favorite fish," Nava said. "They're just so cool. They're shiny and captivating. And I also like their facial expressions. They look like grumpy old men."
When Clarkson was asked if he had a favorite species in the exhibition, he said, "It's always changing. That's because the animals and their behaviors are ever-changing. You spend time in front of one animal and it instantly becomes your favorite. And then you walk 10 feet down the hall and somebody else is doing something equally remarkable. It's just the nature of animals and what they do."