Set on the bluff above the Pacific Ocean in La Jolla, California the Birch Aquarium is a public exploration center for Scripps Institution of Oceanography. With more than 3,000 fish in over 60 habitats, the Birch Aquarium provides ocean science education and promotes ocean conservation. There’s just enough education balanced with hands-on play to satisfy everyone in your group!
The Birch Aquarium is located at 2300 Expedition Way, La Jolla, CA 92037 and open daily from 9am -5pm (closed major holidays). Parking at the Birch Aquarium is free (for up to three hours) and located in a nearby lot. There is also a circular driveway if you need to drop off anyone closer to the entrance. You can definitely cover the entire aquarium in a three hour period.
You can’t miss the life-size sculpture of gray whales at the entrance to the aquarium. This is a great spot for photo taking. Keep in mind that there is only one restroom area at the Birch Aquarium, located before you walk inside the building. There are in and out privileges with a hand stamp so leaving to use the facilities won’t be an issue.
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Hall of Fishes
Once inside the Galleria, enter the Hall of Fishes, starting with the hypnotizing tank of shimmering schools of sardines. As you walk through the path, learn more about the seaweeds, fishes and invertebrates that live in the San Diego Bay, Southern California waters and up the Pacific Northwest coast. Though the aquarium is cool in temperature, I find the lack of moving air a problem for those who have a tendency towards nausea (like myself). If you are prone to motion sickness, sometimes the still air inside of aquariums along with the curved glass and rippling water can induce nausea. I found that dressing lightly and bringing a fan to move air on my face definitely helped.
My 11-year old son is particularly fascinated with ocean creatures. Seeing the golden Garibaldi reminded him of snorkeling off La Jolla shores last year. The rockfish reminded him that he wanted to go fishing off the pier again! My 11-year old daughter enjoyed just watching the creatures in the tank, wandering through the exhibits. My three-year old was very excited about everything and enjoyed playing a “seek and find” game with the pictures and names of the creatures on the key above each tank. He also loved the giant Pacific octopus that suctioned back and forth against the tank.
There were several types of my favorite, the jellyfish; I just love watching them bob around in the water, thankful for the glass dividing us! My eldest son liked that each of the jellyfish species described the sting pain, from mild to severe and wondered exactly what those might feel like (I’m happy not to ever know!)
Unfortunately we arrived about five minute too late to see the animal feedings. We were dead-ended at the 70,000-gallon Kelp Forest Tank as the show was about to begin. We had to turn around and exit back out of the Hall of Fishes. Fortunately they had a pull-down screen in the Galleria to watch a live broadcast of the show. There was a speaker talking about the animals inside but the sound was difficult to hear. Oddly it was louder outside, where you couldn’t see the screen, go figure! A diver hand-feeds the fishes, including several species of sharks, during the Kelp Tank Dive show. Watching the various animal feedings is a highlight at the aquarium, so check online before your visit so you’ll know what time the shows are and plan your visit accordingly. We were disappointed to miss it!
Outside at the Tide-Pool Plaza, there are several touch pools with a few marine plants and animals. My 11-year old son is the only of us brave enough to plunge his hand into the icy water but he enjoyed gently touching the creatures in the tide-pool.
For those who’d rather not freeze their hands, there are windows in the habitats that provide up-close views of seastars, hermit crabs, sea cucumbers, lobsters, and other local San Diego tide pool creatures.
The views of the ocean and La Jolla from the plaza are quite amazing. Unfortunately we were there on a day with drizzle so there was a bit of overcast on the water but still pretty, none the less.
There’s Something About Seahorses
Back inside we wandered through the Scripps Explorers Gallery, with the highlight being the seahorses. There’s Something About Seahorses is the name of this exhibit and truly, they are fascinating to watch. This exhibit featured some of the tiniest seahorses and some seahorse kin, like the leafy seadragon. There are plenty of educational hands-on exhibits, showcasing research discoveries that are relevant to everyday life.
Moving outside into the Exhibit Court, there is a children’s play area called Boundless Energy. This was a handy place to burn off a bit of energy. There was a see-saw to rock on as well as a water sculpture that was “kid-powered” (turn the cranks or pedal the bike to get the sculpture to squirt water and move). There were also two water-play tanks where guests could arrange plastic walls inside a case to create dams and streams for plastic boats to sail around. Inside this courtyard is ElasmoBeach a tank filled with leopard sharks, guitarfish and pelagic rays, all local elasmobranches. Naturally, I had to capture a picture of the kids inside a shark’s mouth before we left for the day!
Should you work up an appetite, The Splash Cafe is located just at the front of the aquarium entrance. You’ll have in and out privileges at the Birch Aquarium so feel free to take a break and grab a bite to eat. They offer chips and drinks along with cold sandwiches, paninis and local baked goods. Gluten-free and organic selections are also available. There was plenty of outdoor seating here and it seemed like a popular dining spot. There is also a gift shop with ocean-themed souvenirs to take home. On a budget? Try one of the pressed penny machines with Birch Aquarium designs.
Make It A Day Trip
Venture down to La Jolla and see the tidepools for yourself. Small creatures are there to spot when the tide goes out (just bring slip-resistant shoes). Rent or bring your own snorkel gear and swim at La Jolla Coves to see the bright orange Garibaldi for yourself. As the sun sets, lay out your blanket and eat a picnic at Scripps Park. It’s one of the best picnic spots in San Diego, with an amazing ocean view.