06/08/2012 07:18 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Who Has America's Best Aquarium? (Video)

In Monterey's world-famous aquarium, the star attractions are jellyfish. They float silently in tanks flooded in blue light, in varieties you never imagined existed. They're spectacular.

In Atlanta's aquarium, it's the Whale Sharks. You never expected to see these enormous creatures outside a TV documentary. Yet here they are, for real. And they're amazing.

The two aquariums -- the legendary Monterey Bay Aquarium and the newish Georgia Aquarium, which is said to be the largest in the U.S. -- are noteworthy destinations in their own right. You can't visit either city without at least considering a stop at their aquariums.

We were lucky to see both within a week of each other on a recent road trip across America. But what if we could have chosen just one aquarium to visit? Which one would we have picked?

When it comes to authenticity, neither facility offers an obvious edge; both are manufactured experiences one degree or another. Monterey's Cannery Row, the backdrop of two John Steinbeck novels, is as touristy as it gets in Northern California. There's a Bubba Gump and a Johnny Rocket's and chain hotel of every persuasion. The Atlanta aquarium is also a tourist trap in its own right, surrounded by attractions such as the World of Coca-Cola and the CNN Center.

Monterey: Jellyfish Rule

We stopped by the Monterey Aquarium on a weekday morning. It was already busy, mostly with school groups, but not crowded. Our kids were drawn to the lower levels of the facility, which housed something called the Jellies Experience.

You know how every aquarium promises you an "immersive" experience? Well, this was it. From the funky 1970s soundtrack to the lighting, which varied from a deep blue to disco strobes, you felt as if you were being drawn into the world of these small, beautiful creatures.

Jellyfish are fragile and some are quite rare. The ones we saw bore no resemblance to the bleached-out jellies you see washed up on the beach. These were colorful and animated. Our five-year-old daughter didn't want to leave. She pressed her nose against the glass and gazed at the jellyfish as if they were aliens from another world, which, in a sense, they were.

Monterey's aquarium offers far more than jellyfish, of course. A wide variety of sharks, marine mammals and reptiles is on display in its tanks. We've never seen anything like it before, but the jellyfish will leave an indelible impression.

Atlanta: Bigger Is Better

Our visit to the Georgia Aquarium happened over a weekend, which in retrospect was probably a mistake. It was packed with visitors, and I will resist using any metaphors that involve sardines to describe how crowded it was. This aquarium takes aquariums to the next level. It's part mall, part concert and part theme park (and mean that in the best possible way -- after all, we're from Orlando).

Like the jellyfish in Monterey, your attention is drawn to the large tropical area, where the whale sharks are found. I'm a former scuba diving instructor. The moment I walked into the exhibit area and saw a tank teeming with grouper, rays, shark, and of course the larger-than-life whale shark, I instinctively began to moderate my breathing. I almost tried to reach for my regulator, which you use to breathe underwater.

There were plenty of other attractions, including a fascinating exhibit on frogs, a shark "petting" tank, and a penguin area. But let's not kid ourselves: the real draw was the shark tank.

Pick one, kids

In our family of five, the question of which aquarium was better got a split vote. Our oldest son was partial to Monterey because he's an avid photographer, and the picture opportunities were better in California. Our middle son liked the interactive playground in Atlanta, with its kids-only slides and full-size fishing boat. And our youngest remains mesmerized by the jellies.

And mom and dad? We try to avoid crowds and like Cannery Row's proximity to the Pacific appealed to us. But we also loved the whale sharks. Can't stop talking about 'em.