The Birch Aquarium in San Diego, California, is the aquarium of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. The aquarium sits on a bluff and overlooks the Pacific Ocean. It is home to over 60 habitats, simulating the cold waters of the Pacific Ocean, the warm waters of Mexico, and many more. The aquarium’s interactive exhibits also educate the public on the ongoing research at the Scripps Institute.

Over 5,000 fish are housed in the aquarium in a variety of habitats and exhibits. The Hall of Fishes is a journey from the cold northern waters of the Pacific Northwest towards the warmer oceans of Mexico and into the Indo-Pacific coral reefs. The highlight of this exhibit is a rescued loggerhead sea turtle. The Giant Kelp Forest exhibit is a 70,000-gallon, two-story tank with moray eels, leopard sharks, and the endangered black sea bass as occupants. The Expedition at Sea exhibit introduces visitors to the RV Sally Ride, the newest research vessel in the Scripps fleet, and shows what life is like aboard a 238-foot ship. Something About Seahorses allows for up-close encounters with the illusive and mysterious seadragons, bred at the aquarium. The Elasmo Beach exhibit is a large outdoor tank occupied by sea life local to San Diego’s shores, such as rays and leopard sharks. Also outdoors, the tide pools on the plaza are home to the Life on the Edge (of Land and Sea) exhibit. This exhibit is based on local tidal pools and allows visitors to get hands-on with starfish, sea cucumbers, hermit crabs, lobsters, and more.

History: The Scripps Institution of Oceanography has maintained an aquarium since its inception in 1905. The founding bylaws of the institution mandated that such a facility exist to share the results of Scripps research with the public. The predecessor to today’s aquarium, the Marine Biological Association of San Diego, began in 1903 when Scripps was first formed by the UC Berkeley zoologist William E. Ritter, physician Fred Baker, and philanthropists E. W. and Ellen Browning Scripps. By 1907 the organization had purchased over 150 acres of land at La Jolla Shores and built a small aquarium with a second-floor lecture hall. This building still stands on the Scripps campus today, and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The first standalone aquarium was built in 1915 and contained 19 tanks, the largest of which held almost 230 gallons. After World War II, efforts to build a larger aquarium continued and the Scripps Aquarium-Museum opened in 1951. The 18-tank facility was 3 stories tall and grouped the tanks around a central museum that housed exhibits on Scripps research. This building was home to the aquarium for 40 years. Fundraising efforts began in the 1980s for a new, improved facility. The 10-million-dollar Birch Aquarium opened its doors in 1992 as the third reincarnation of the Scripps aquarium. While the facility itself is impressive, Scripps devotes great effort to being a “museum without walls” by bringing programming to the public through traveling exhibits, outreach programs, publications, and curricula. Today, over 460,000 people visit the Birch Aquarium annually.

Ongoing Programs and Education: Aquarium visits are self-guided. Group tours are available for a minimum of 10 people and may be centered on such themes as the Ocean Discovery Experience or the Shark Discovery Experience. Activities such as the Kelp Tank Dive Shows provide entertainment and educate guests, where divers feed the sharks and eels and answer questions after mealtime. Feedings and shows also take place in the tide pools and the Elasmo Beach exhibit. Hands-on exhibits include Explore It, which offers a close-up experience with live animals, and the Think Tank, a hands-on engineering challenge. Programs for adults include Perspectives Lectures, where Scripps scientists offer engaging presentations on research taking place both at the Scripps Research Institute and worldwide. Children’s programming includes summer camps, where kids split time between the classroom and the seashore with educational and creative activities. Camps are available for ages 5-15. Off-site all-ages programs include snorkeling with local leopard sharks, full-day whale watching trips, full moon pier walks, tide pool explorations, and Grunion runs. All off-site tours are guided by naturalists from the aquarium. SEA Days (Science, Exploration, and Adventure) are once-monthly all-ages activity days that allow visitors to speak to an oceanographer about their current research.

Past and Future Exhibits: The Expedition will open in 2018 and will showcase Scripps’ research on climate change in Antarctica and educate visitors on Scripps’ efforts to preserve and protect the planet.

2300 Expedition Way, La Jolla, CA 92037, Phone: 858-534-3474, website, Map

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