The octopus, the squid and their exotic kin are famous for their uncanny ability to hide in plain sight, but now these masters of disguise are taking center stage at the Monterey Bay Aquarium's new exhibit, "Tentacles."

The new exhibit features the world's largest display of cephalopods, a marine invertebrate family that also includes the cuttlefish and the nautilus. Among the dozens of creatures on display are enormous eight-armed Pacific octopuses, the shape-shifting wunderpus, a brigade of jet-propelled bigfin reef squid and a never-before-exhibited deep-sea flapjack octopus, which resembles a child's plush toy.

Christian Culver, 7, of Rocklin, CA, gets a close look at a Day octopus in the new exhibit called Tentacles at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey,
Christian Culver, 7, of Rocklin, CA, gets a close look at a Day octopus in the new exhibit called Tentacles at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif., on Tuesday, April 15, 2014. Two years in the making, the exhibit featuring cephalopods opened just a few days ago on April 12. (Dan Honda/Bay Area News Group) ( Dan Honda )

Cephalopods are shy creatures that love to camouflage themselves or hide in tiny crevices, as Diego Campbell, 8, saw firsthand last week while he gazed into a large glass orb seemingly filled with only sand and a forest of coral.

"I'm trying to count how many cuttlefish there are," he said, wide-eyed, as he scanned every inch of the display. "I like them because they are cute."

"There's one!" his brother Carlo, 9, said excitedly as he pointed to a tiny white and tan creature hidden beneath a piece of bleached coral. "So far we've spotted 10."

Showcasing a species so adept at hiding posed a considerable challenge to exhibit designers.

"It's a group of animals that are constantly keeping us on our toes," said Paul Clarkson, aquarium husbandry curator. "We've got to think of unique ways to display them so that people can see them, but at the same time keep the animals comfortable."

As a husbandry curator, most of Clarkson's work happens behind the glass. He's responsible for taking care of the living creatures, so he does everything from incubating baby squids and feeding the nautiluses to designing hiding spots for the octopuses and adjusting lighting for the cuttlefish.

The inspiration for "Tentacles," Clarkson said, was the flamboyant cuttlefish, an exotic creature whose purple, gold and white colors change and flow like a lava lamp. The "alien hovercraft Mardi Gras float creature," as he describes it, was the first specimen to come to mind two years ago when he and others hatched the idea of a cephalopod exhibit.

"It's the most bizarre thing on the planet," he said. "Its colors -- you probably couldn't paint something like that if you tried."

Perched on her father's shoulders, Evi Walters, 3, had an excellent view of the chambered nautilus tank. Both she and her father were fascinated by the 50 armored cephalopods clinging to the walls and floating up and down in the display.

"I've never seen something like that before," said Thomas Walters. "Seeing them all in one tank is pretty amazing."

Walters brought Evi and the rest of their family from Livonia, N.Y., to visit the aquarium where his wife watched sharks and fish swim as a child. He said they wanted their kids to experience the same sense of wonder that she had growing up.

The "Tentacles" exhibit has a shadowy, cavernous feel, with its dark octopus grotto and coral-covered nautilus cave. Jeff Hoke, exhibit designer, said he designed each part of it to have one big light-up window amid black walls to help visitors orient themselves.

"It's a treasure hunt going through here. That's the nature of these animals. That was the challenge for this exhibit," Hoke said.

Also on display are images from ancient art and pop culture that depict thousands of years of human fascination with cephalopods, from Roman tiles and Minoan pottery to the mythical ship-sinking kraken.

One difficulty that both the designers and the husbandry staff had to face when dealing with cephalopods was the creatures' short life spans, which are measured in months, not years. For every two or three squids on display, there are hundreds in a back room at varying states of growth ready to replace them.

There are also about six backup species for some of the larger tanks. In total, the aquarium is prepared to present any one of almost 30 species, each with appropriate videos and labels ready to go.

"It's the equivalent of doing almost three special exhibits," said Jacki Tomulonis, exhibit developer.

Tomulonis worked with Bay Area artist Nemo Gould to create three steampunk sculptures that send an environmental message to visitors about threats that overfishing, ocean pollution, and coastal overdevelopment pose to cephalopod conservation.

In addition to its environmental message, the exhibit also includes several interactive features such as a multimedia cephalopod fact sheet, a squid race and a nautilus elevator created by exhibit developer Raúl Nava. There is also a station where visitors can take "cephalopod selfies," pictures of themselves donning color-changing camouflages that vary depending on their facial expressions.

"We really hope that this exhibit will give visitors a new appreciation for these really remarkable animals that have captured their imaginations for years," Nava said, "but are still relatively unknown and in need of our protection."

Contact Nicholas St. Fleur at nstfleur1@mercurynews.com.

If you go
Location: Monterey Bay Aquarium, 886 Cannery Row, Monterey
Phone: 831-648-4800
Hours: Daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. during holidays and summer months.
Price: $39.95 adult; $34.95 senior (over 65) and student (age 13 to 17 or with college ID); $24.95 child (age 3-12). Children under 3 are admitted free. Group rates are available with advance booking for parties of 20 or more.