California's spectacular new Monterey Bay Aquarium manages to accomplish the architecturally improbable. It is the biggest aquarium in the United States and at the same time is arguably the most personal.

Here on Cannery Row, where sardines once had their fate sealed in tins, their descendants now roam the ample waters of a $40-million aquarium. The facility, which opened last fall, is in Monterey, a 2 1/2-hour drive south of San Francisco. Although the exhibits are among the largest in the country, this hands-on aquarium still makes landlubbers feel as though they're on a scuba dive.

Everywhere, people become involved. A silver-haired woman giggles in delight at the sea otter tank as one of the bewhiskered charmers paddles by on its back, holding a bit of fish to its mouth with its stubby flippers. A child wrinkles his nose as he squeezes a starfish in one of the museum's "please touch" exhibits. Children shriek with glee as a man-made wave crashes upon the boulders of an outdoor exhibit, splashing them with sea water.

There are many reasons for Monterey Bay Aquarium's unique appeal.

The site, for one, is a mother lode of Americana. It is Cannery Row, the site that inspired John Steinbeck's novel of the same name. The aquarium is built on the architectural footprint of the Row's Hovden Cannery, the largest of the canneries and, when it closed its doors in 1970, the last to fold.

Unlike most aquariums, the Monterey Bay facility contains only fish and plants native to the region. Not only are visitors learning about the life of the sea, they are learning about that part of the sea that they can see through the large windows that open the building up to the ocean. Amazingly, even though the exhibit is limited to local creatures, it contains more than 5,000 specimens representing almost 300 species of plants and animals. With everything from deepwater wolf-eels to bright-colored reef fish, one doesn't even miss the tropical fish.

The Monterey Bay area is rich in wildlife. "It's certainly one of the most diverse marine areas in the world in terms of numbers of species," says aquarium spokesman Hank Armstrong. The reason for the diversity is Monterey Canyon, a 70-mile-long gash in the ocean floor that is big enough to swallow two Grand Canyons and have room left over for an arroyo or two. So close does this big trench come to shore that at one place north of the aquarium, you could stand on the beach and throw a stone into it.

The many habitats created by the canyon make for the diversity of marine life. For example, the bay contains 80 percent of the algal species that occur between Baja and Alaska; those algae in turn support a wide variety of animals.

Instead of filing fish away in what look like giant department-store display cases, the aquarium thrusts them out at people, forcing them to become involved.

The gigantic Kelp Forest, for example, has an L-shaped corner that surrounds visitors with a world of undulating kelp and flashing schools of jacksmelt. The kelp tank is the tallest aquarium tank in the country -- just one of its seven-inch-thick acrylic windows weighs as much as a Ford Mustang. It is one of the only tanks in existence that contain living kelp, the leafy seaweed that grows to the height of the average flagpole.

Hidden water jets and an eight-foot underwater piston create a constant surge of water, making the massive plants move in a hypnotic water ballet. The simulated wave motion has more than an esthetic purpose; it brings nutrients that are necessary for the sensitive plants to survive. Giant pumps suck in a fresh batch of sea water about every 80 minutes.

The sea otter tank is another example of the way in which the Monterey Bay Aquarium involves the visitor. Like the kelp forest, it can be viewed at two levels. At the top, you can press your nose against the seven-inch-thick acrylic window and watch the otters paddle by on their backs, looking for all the world like contented salesmen on a Caribbean vacation.

At the lower level, you can see the otters plunging from the surface, taking a silvery stream of bubbles with them on their search for a stray bit of cod lodged in the mossy boulders. The gluttonous creatures eat up to a quarter of their body weight in one day, ringing up an annual seafood bill of $10,000 per otter. The three winsome otters were given to the aquarium after being orphaned in heavy surf -- a fact that only makes them all the more endearing to the crowds. "The otters are the stars, no question about that," said Armstrong.

Perhaps least personal but most awesome is the giant Monterey Bay exhibit, a tank almost the length of a football field that manages to incorporate the deep reefs, the sandy sea floor, the shallow shale reefs and, literally, pieces of a 30- to 50-year-old Monterey Bay pier that were cut out and brought to the exhibit complete with barnacles. The tank's hourglass shape is aimed at providing a wide turning arc as well as a long straightaway for cruising sharks.

Seven-gill sharks and leopard sharks cruise malevolently among the bat rays, salmon and slightly edgy mackerel. Local fishermen have brought in a blue shark, two thresher sharks and even a great white shark of "Jaws" fame, but all have succumbed either to stress or to injuries received while being caught.

The white shark was caught by the tail in a fishermen's net. The Bodega Bay fishermen donated the 100-pound fish to the aquarium, where it lived for 11 days. The record lifespan for a white in captivity is 18 days.

One of the most startling exhibits is the sandy shore, an open-air cross section of a beach complete with avocets, snowy plovers, stilts and other seabirds that wade in the man-made waves just inches from your nose. So close are the birds, and so nonexistent the barriers between you and them, that aquarium officials have been forced to put up a sign warning children and the childlike against trying to grab the birds.

The placard is one of very few "do not" signs in the building. Everything else says "Please touch." Visitors are allowed to feed and pet the harmless bat rays in a waist-high tank. Or they can pinch the fleshy leaves of kelp and stroke the rough outer shell of the starfish.

"It's really exciting to see people get involved in the exhibits the way they were planned to," said Armstrong, who admitted to doubting at first whether people would be interested in squeezing the kelp.

The wonders are limitless. A giant octopus stares at a visitor through heavy-lidded eyes, the sides of its fleshy body pulsating like a bellows. One series of exhibits takes visitors on an imaginary scuba trip through a tangled kelp forest and past ocean walls covered with an explosion of pink and purple corals.

A waterfall tumbles into a rocky slough and, outside, giant waves crash into a craggy tide pool where through the glass walls you can see tiny fish being buffeted by the turbulence.

The concept of the aquarium was spawned more than seven years ago by four Monterey Bay-area scientists as they were sitting at the dinner table in the Carmel Valley home of Nancy Burnett and her husband Robin. Nancy Burnett is the daughter of Hewlett-Packard computer magnate David Packard. She, her sister and her husband all are marine biologists, so when they made a plea to the Packard foundation for money to study the aquarium idea, they found little resistance.

The original concept was to convert the old Hovden Cannery to an aquarium, a project the group expected to cost several million dollars. After the study proved that plan unfeasible, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation came up with $40 million to build a new aquarium, complete, of course, with the latest computer-controlled equipment.

Both the foundation and the roofline of the new building follow those of the old cannery. Exhibits tell the story of the now largely defunct canning industry that inspired Steinbeck's novel.

The aquarium is intended to be self-supporting. Most of the revenue comes from admission fees ($7 adults, $5 students and seniors, $3 children aged 3-12) and from corporate and private donations. Attendance on weekends and holidays has been so large that tickets for those periods now must be purchased in advance, through Ticketron. The aquarium is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week, closing only on Christmas Day.

Your meeting with the sea needn't stop at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Behind it you might see sea otters frolicking in the surf or sea lions and harbor seals lounging on nearby rocks. Farther out, you may see the sharklike fins of porpoises or dolphins and occasionally the spout of a migrating gray whale.

Monterey is 15 to 20 miles from where the spectacular area of rugged coastline known as Big Sur begins. You can spend the better part of a day visiting the aquarium and still have time to pick up a bottle of California Zinfandel and drive to a craggy bluff to picnic as the sun sets over the Pacific.