Monterey Bay Aquarium animals ready for their closeup with reopening set for May 15

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MONTEREY, CA - AUGUST 20: Rey, a penguin, looks out at the Kelp Forest tank while stopping near Senior Aviculturist Kim Fukuda, 46, of Marina, while Rey takes a stroll in the aquarium outside of the penguin enclosure at the Monterey Bay Aquarium on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020 in Monterey, CA. The aquarium has been closed to the public until further notice due to the ongoing Coronavirus Pandemic. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
A penguin named Rey looks at the kelp forest tank with senior aviculturist Kim Fukuda at the Monterey Bay Aquarium on Aug. 20, 2020. The aquarium is set to reopen May 15. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

After being closed for more than a year during the pandemic, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is set to reopen to the public May 15, and some animals appear happier about it than others, officials say.

At the beginning of the month, the aquarium began allowing members to visit. The trips functioned as a test run for the rollout of COVID-19 safety precautions, including a one-way path around the facility, mandated masking, capacity limits and distancing requirements of “a few otter lengths.”

The otters and penguins are said to have perked up in the presence of new faces.

They've "really, really engaged when they see people now in the building," said Cynthia Vernon, the aquarium’s chief operating officer. "They're coming up and wanting to interact with folks. And that's a great thing."

On the other hand, some of the birds in the aviary — including sandpipers, snowy plovers and oystercatchers — might need more time to adjust to visitors.

People can walk through the aviary, but with months free from intrusion, the birds have “been used to spreading out,” Vernon said, noting that they “are having to get used to staying back over in their side of the space.”

The fish don't seem to care much one way or another, she added.

Human visitors, however, seem enthused, Vernon said. Tickets for the general public went on sale Wednesday, and “it got a lot of traffic,” she said.

"The staff, especially, is ecstatic that we've got people back in the building," she said.

The aquarium closed in March 2020 as the pandemic began to grip California, and it had a catastrophic financial effect on the facility, the main draw on touristy Cannery Row.

The aquarium lost about $55 million in revenue last year and cut about 250 workers — or 40% of its staff. Some employees are being hired back, but it’s slow going, Vernon said.

It costs about $1 million weekly to operate the facility, including caring for the animals, officials said. Most of the aquarium’s revenue comes from ticket sales.

There will be some changes with the reopening, Vernon said.

Tickets for a given time slot — at 30-minute intervals — must be purchased online in advance. About 175 people will be allowed in every half-hour, a fraction of pre-pandemic capacity.

Monterey County is in the orange tier of California's reopening blueprint, which allows aquariums to open indoors at 50% of maximum capacity. Attendance may increase to 75% if all guests show proof of a negative coronavirus test or full vaccination.

Visitors over age 3 also will be required to wear tight-fitting face coverings; gaiters, bandanas and other loose-fitting masks will not be permitted.

Some interactive exhibits are closed for the time being.

There are some perks to the new rules, though.

Between the capacity limits and social distancing, it’s easier to access exhibits that normally draw a crush of people.

“What we've heard from people is like, ‘Wow, I've never been able to get right up close to the otters or the penguins or the kelp forests without having lots of other people around,’” Vernon said. “So that has been a really good experience for people.”

The aquarium is planning to expand its capacity in June or July if it finds it can operate safely and coronavirus case rates continue to decline. Monterey County could move to the least-restrictive yellow tier as early as next week, although the state is planning to fully reopen all sectors of the economy on June 15.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.