The aquarium occupies land at south end of today's Cannery Row on the edge of Pacific Grove, at the site of the Hovden Cannery, a sardine cannery which helped to define the character of Monterey from the time it was built in 1916, to the day when it was the last cannery on the Row to close in 1973, after sardine fishing collapsed. This building was dismantled in 1980, but beginning in 2002 the Monterey Bay Aquarium has blown the original Hovden cannery steam whistle at noon each day to commemorate it.
The aquarium's original building was designed by the architectural firm Esherick Homsey Dodge & Davis and opened on 20 October 1984. The aquarium's mission is "to inspire conservation of the oceans." The aquarium's initial financial backing was provided by David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard. Packard, an avid blacksmith, personally designed and created several exhibit elements for the aquarium at his forge in Big Sur, including the wave machines in the Kelp Forest and aviary. His daughter, the marine biologist Julie Packard, is currently Executive Director of the aquarium.