Birch Aquarium is one of San Diego’s best attractions and not your average aquarium. The hands-on exhibits and over 60 fish and invertebrate habitats showcase the research and findings of the famous Scripps Institution of Oceanography, one of the largest centers for ocean and Earth science research.
Programming for both locals and tourists extends far beyond the aquarium itself. Seasonal adventures that meet in various San Diego locations encourage all ages to get outside, unplug, explore, view wildlife, and learn more about how we can better care for our local environment. And, Birch Aquarium offers a myriad of opportunities for kids to experience what it’s like to be a scientist, resources for educators and outstanding summer camps.
Birch Aquarium Basics
A powerful conservation message is woven throughout Birch Aquarium, which is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. We’ve been visiting the aquarium for nearly 11 years. It’s a treat to watch the kids pick up something new and exciting to them every single time.
Birch Aquarium’s location in the La Jolla Shores neighborhood is just a few minutes away from the I-5 freeway (San Diego’s major transportation artery) which means convenient access from the rest of San Diego. And, it’s easy to pair a Birch Aquarium visit with stops at other La Jolla attractions.
The facilities are also straightforward to navigate, especially for young families with strollers. The entire aquarium is accessible, and it doesn’t take long to get from one side to the other. It’s easy for kids to dart back and forth between favorite exhibits. This, combined with spectacular ocean views is why I’ve never found visiting to be stressful.
Plan Your Visit
An average visit typically lasts between 2-3 hours. Shows and feedings occur at various times throughout the week so check the daily schedule to plan around events of interest. Drinks and snacks are entirely fine to bring in but not necessary as they can be purchased at the Splash! Cafe. You’ll find plenty of places, including the Splash! Cafe patio to sit, relax and grab a bite to eat. Changing tables are also available inside the restrooms.
Who Is Birch Aquarium For?
Everyone. There isn’t an age group that can’t enjoy Birch Aquarium and its programming. I used to believe that the aquarium was best for toddlers and preschoolers but these days, you’ll see plenty of adults practicing photography, tourists and even older kids revisiting favorite exhibits.
Birch Aquarium Exhibits
You will get more out of your visit by taking a few minutes to understand what you’re looking at and why it’s on display. Here’s what to expect inside the aquarium listed in the order that the kids I’m with typically choose.
Enter Birch Aquarium via the lobby. Here, the Pacific Sardines tank is likely to lure you to the right, into Hall of Fishes. It’s also not uncommon for kids to want to take a second spin around Hall of Fishes before exiting for the day so you may want to plan extra time for this.
Hall of Fishes
Here, guests journey through the California Current which brings water from the Pacific Northwest, down to California and the warm Mexico waters, and finishes in the Indo-Pacific coral reefs. Hall of Fishes highlights include:
Giant Kelp Forest
Did you know that in the right conditions, kelp can grow up to 3 feet per day? You’ve seen it onshore but take a look inside the two-story Giant Kelp Forest to see how kelp grows underwater and who lives among it. Residents include the orange Garibaldi (California’s state fish) leopard sharks, eels, the giant seabass and more.
Check the daily schedule for the Kelp Tank Dive Show, where divers in the tank answer audience questions and talk about how many of the products we use daily use kelp as an ingredient. You’ll be able to watch divers feed the fish, too. Arrive a few minutes before the show starts for optimal seating. You can also view tank happenings through the online Kelp Cam.
Rescued Loggerhead Sea Turtle
Cute does not begin to describe the loggerhead sea turtle who is now in residence permanently at Birch Aquarium after being rescued from a New Jersey power plant in 2013. Rear flipper paralysis and scoliosis (likely due to trauma before her rescue) deems her unreleasable. The combination of CT scans and 3-D technology enabled staff to create a brace to place on her cracked shell so that she can grow normally and serve as one of Birch Aquarium’s conservation ambassadors. They hope she inspires others to think about what they do on land and in the water as humans actions are the biggest threat to sea turtles. We’re talking about debris like plastic bags, fishing nets, pollution and more.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3:00 p.m., guests can watch the loggerhead sea turtle partake in training and a meal.
100 Island Challenge
It’s impossible to miss the brightly-colored 100 Island Challenge just past the loggerhead sea turtle. This experimental reef allows scientists to test equipment and research techniques before traveling to remote locations. Their goal is to collect data from coral reefs surrounding 100 tropical islands around the world to understand better how these reefs respond to changes in our planet.
Tide Pool Plaza
Seasonal low tides during winter months reveal tide pools along San Diego’s coast. The living tide pools in Tide Pool Plaza are an opportunity for all ages to view sea life that lives in our local tide pools. Volunteers here facilitate gentle touching and answer questions. These animals and plants are the heartiest of sea life as they must learn to survive underwater life, rough ocean tides, sunshine and predators on land.
Get your camera ready as Tide Pool Plaza is also home to one of the most spectacular ocean views in San Diego.
Expedition at Sea
The Scripps Institution of Oceanography has one of the largest research fleets in the world, including the new R/V Sally Ride named for famed astronaut and UC San Diego professor, Sally Ride. This exhibit showcases more about the ship’s research and what it’s like to be out at sea. You’ll even have a chance to suit up like an explorer.
Plan plenty of time for the kinetic sand station that allows kids to shape their own sea floor. The color changes with the sand’s depth, and it’s unbelievably cool.
Let the kids burn off steam in this science-based outdoor play area that showcases how natural energy powers each of the stations from see-saws to wind energy. (It may not surprise you to know that Birch Aquarium’s roof is covered with solar panels to help reduce their energy footprint, too.)
Also on the patio is a tribute to elasmobranchs including La Jolla’s famous leopard sharks that arrive in summer to incubate in our warm water in addition to other sharks and rays. Check the daily schedule for feedings here but keep in mind that in summer, Birch Aquarium leads snorkeling with leopard sharks tours at La Jolla Shores beach. Yes, leopard sharks are bottom feeders and safe to snorkel with.
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