Learn about California marine life, then meet the real thing, along Steinbeck’s famed Cannery Row.

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MONTEREY, Calif. — On this Cannery Row waterfront famously chronicled by local boy John Steinbeck, along a salty crescent of the Pacific still rich with kelp forests and delightfully populated with scalawag sea lions and fuzzily adorable sea otters, I’d planned the perfect day of discovery.

I’d be in line for the 10 a.m. opening of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the world’s best saltwater educational zoos, and spend an eye-opening couple of hours learning about the fertile underwater world just off these piers.

Then at 1:30, not far down the beach, a local guide and I would launch our kayak for a 2½-hour paddling tour of the real thing.

If you go

Marine life of Monterey

Monterey Bay Aquarium, open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (with longer hours during holiday periods); $39.95 adults; $24.95 for children 3-12; $34.95 for students and 65-and-older. Behind-the-scenes tours add $15. 886 Cannery Row, Monterey; 831-648-4800 or montereybayaquarium.org.

A 2½-hour guided kayak tour of Monterey Bay with Monterey Bay Kayaks is $60, including wet suit. (One hour, $45.) Sunrise tours, fishing tours and boat rentals also available. 693 Del Monte Ave., Monterey; 800-649-5357 or montereybaykayaks.com.

Traveler’s tip

Buy aquarium tickets online to avoid longer waits at the door. During peak periods, entry lines form 30 minutes before opening time.

More information

Monterey County Convention & Visitors Bureau, 888-221-1010 or seemonterey.com

Beyond Cannery Row’s bronze statue of Steinbeck, walk quickly past the tourist shops that would make the Pulitzer-winning storyteller wince so hard he’d bite the stem off his pipe. Go see what makes this place on Earth special: its marine life.

Go with a strategy

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Full disclosure: Not all is mellow and tourist-free at the deservedly popular aquarium. If you’re there during spring break, as I was, think like a Disneyland regular and strategize your visit. As with Disney, there are so many attractions you’ll feel like a drowning victim if you try to flail through the crowds to see everything. Do some research in advance and choose “must sees” that can be packed into a couple of hours.

My first choice: the 10:30 a.m. feeding at the sea otter exhibit. I wasn’t alone. Happily, the aquarium has overhead video screens, like mini-Jumbotrons, for those in the back of the crowd. (See the Sea Otter Cam at bit.ly/1fVFWmP.)

I heard languages from Chinese to German among the milling visitors.

“Breakfast this morning is a mixture of invertebrates, including squid, shrimp and clams,” a friendly narrator named Jessica informed us. Some of the otter food was hidden in plastic toys.

The otters, with names such as Gidget, Abby and Rosa, were all part of the threatened southern sea otter population and came here through the aquarium’s Sea Otter Research and Conservation program. The 31-year-old program rescues, treats and releases injured otters, raises and releases stranded pups through a surrogate-mother program, provides care for otters that can’t return to the wild and conducts scientific research.

Topping the bill

For my money, the aquarium’s star attraction, in a former sardine cannery, is the million-gallon Open Sea tank. With its 90-foot window — as wide as the movie screen at Seattle’s Cinerama — kids can put their noses right up to the glass as an 8-foot hammerhead shark, or a tuna that weighs more than their Uncle Roscoe, swims past inches away. (See it via webcam at bit.ly/P4I71P.)

“You know when Mom makes Daddy a tuna-fish sandwich? That’s where that comes from!” I heard a grandmother tell a wide-eyed child.

The crowd oohed and aahed as a cloud of 20,000 sardines swirled like an Oklahoma tornado, in a constant, mesmerizing vortex. Who knew all this pirouetting was going on under the water’s surface?

A loud “eek” came as a big fish made a lunge for a wayward sardine.

“Kids, there’s a good reason to stay in school!” joked another narrator, Emily, introducing the feeding demo (tip: Head for the balcony for best views).

The subject of seafood is bound to arise, and kudos to the aquarium for promoting consciousness of sustainable harvests. Emily noted that the snub-nosed mahi mahi we saw grows faster and reproduces quickly, making it a better dining choice than the slow-growing Bluefin tuna. Staff handed out sustainable-dining guides (see seafoodwatch.org).

Other popular exhibits ranged from touch tanks (kids loved the warty sea cucumbers) to the tidal-surge dome where visitors stand as seawater suddenly gushes with a thunderous roar over the glass around them. Selfies clicked madly; it was as popular as a thrill ride.

As a good segue, I stopped by the Kelp Forest tank for an underwater view of what I would soon paddle across. Giant kelp plants grow in tidal waters 20 to 100 feet deep along the California coast, forming what are said to be the biggest underwater forests in the world.

Out 0n the water

“See how the otters wrap themselves in the kelp?” instructed my guide, a young college student named Garret Sutherland, as we paddled our open-top, double-seater kayak on the bay an hour later.

Fewer than five minutes beyond the bay’s breakwater we were paddling among wild sea otters.

“Look, there’s a mother cradling a baby — you don’t see that very often!” he pointed in excitement.

Seattle Times travel writer Brian Cantwell sees an array of creatures while kayaking in Monterey Bay, Calif. (Brian Cantwell & Katie G. Cotterill / The Seattle Times)

But before the day was out we would see a half dozen more mothers with pups, including one with twins. They perched on Mom’s belly as their parent floated on her back. Little heads poked up to look at us as we quietly paddled less than 100 feet away.

The otters use the kelp to anchor themselves as they rest or sleep, Sutherland explained, “so they don’t wake up in Santa Cruz” — 25 miles across the bay.

We had paddled out from the beach at Monterey Bay Kayaks, just east of Cannery Row, past a rocky breakwater crowded with hundreds of braying sea lions. My nose wrinkled at the strong, sour smell of fishy, white guano that coated the rocks.

As we skirted the breakwater, I encountered something I’ve never seen in Puget Sound: a “ball” of sea lions, maybe five or six, floating together, just barely breaking the water’s surface. We almost ran over them before they whirled and splashed away.

As they floated, some sea lions held their flippers high out of the water.

Kayakers paddle past sea lions basking on the surface of Monterey Bay.  (Monterey Bay Kayaks)
Kayakers paddle past sea lions basking on the surface of Monterey Bay. (Monterey Bay Kayaks)

“That’s a way to warm up, like human ears help dissipate heat. Their fins will warm up when held out of the water, and help raise their body temperature,” Sutherland advised.

Sea otters, floating higher on the water, were easy to spot. We paddled from one group to another. Almost every group had at least one pup. Sutherland had never seen such a good spring for otter pups.

“This is good news! They thought the southern sea otter was extinct at one time.”

Lately, about 2,900 have been counted on the California coast.

Furs were prized

In the early 1800s, Russian hunters even brought Aleuts — expert otter hunters — from Alaska to help hunt the California otter population. Otter furs were prized because they are so dense, with something like a million hairs per square inch (versus 100,000 or fewer hairs on a human head).

Sea otters are an important part of the kelp-forest ecosystem, eating sea urchins that would otherwise overharvest the kelp, I’d learned at the aquarium.

We paddled past crumbling piers and remnants of old canneries mixed with modern restaurants and other structures along Cannery Row until we reached the aquarium and waved to visitors looking through spotting scopes from the waterfront deck.

It was mating and nesting season for cormorants, which we saw left and right trailing long strings of seaweed in their bills.

“They take the seaweed and poop on it, and as it dries they make a sort of papier mâché nest on rocks or cliffs,” Sutherland instructed. (Case in point of “learning something new every day.”)

When we saw the otter with twin pups, Sutherland told me twins are unusual, and that mother otters can usually care for only one.

“That why it’s great that the aquarium has a surrogate-mother program. They can take in a twin baby,” he said.

Getting slimed

We skirted shoreside rocks and discovered a California sea hare, a weird-looking sea slug with bunnylike “ears.” It squirted purple ink — an escape strategy — all over me when I held it.

Along a dock, we found sea stars that hadn’t been killed by the sea-star virus prevalent in Puget Sound and elsewhere. Sutherland asked me if I knew why sea stars, which stay in one place for long periods, don’t have marine growth on their tops. “Uh, no,” I said.

He explained that they have little feelers on top that pinch if something comes in contact, and demonstrated by pulling a purple sea star the size of a dinner plate off the dock and challenging me to hold its top side to the top of my head for a count of 10.

Sure enough, when I pulled it away, it yanked out a hank of my hair as I reacted with a shout. I didn’t get that experience at the aquarium’s touch tank.

With that, it was time to head back to shore, after a marvelous — if somewhat pinchy, inky and stinky — real-life encounter with the marine world about which I’d learned that morning.