By J.C. Thomas
There are two ways to witness the stunning diversity of marine life of our planet’s oceans, seas and waterways: embark upon diving excursions all over the world; or visit amazing aquariums and other marine life exhibits. In Southern California, three such destinations draw crowds of locals and visitors with their dazzling aquatic habitats and other attractions. San Diego’s SeaWorld, the Birch Aquarium in La Jolla and the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach all invite you to admire their resident sea creatures large and small, from pinkie-sized seahorses to majestic beluga whales. Spend some time transfixed by pulsating jellies, charmed by playful otters and astounded by the otherwise invisible natural beauty of the underwater world.
Know that these three AZA-accredited institutions all acknowledge the concerns of their potential visitors regarding environmental sustainability. We’re all increasingly aware of the peril faced by marine life due to climate change and other threats. Choosing whether to visit and support aquariums is complex, involving weighing the potential for enjoyment and education against personal beliefs about captive wildlife. Therefore, an overview of each institution’s mission and efforts toward sustainability is included below.
SeaWorld San Diego
The biggest and best-known of Southern California’s marine life attractions is SeaWorld in San Diego. Established in 1964, this is the original SeaWorld that launched the global brand and introduced the world to the beloved, belated killer whale Shamu. Today, SeaWorld attracts more than 4 million visitors per year and brings together aquarium and zoological displays with roller coasters and water rides.
Highlights include the Wild Arctic zone, with above- and below-water viewing areas around beluga whales, walruses, polar bears and more. There’s also the Orca Encounter, a documentary-style presentation of orca behaviors in front of an enormous infinity-screen backdrop. Don’t miss the Shark Encounter, a 280,000-gallon habitat with a clear walk-through tube for unmatched views of its 10 shark species. Take little ones to Sesame Street’s Bay of Play with its kids’ rides and favorite characters. SeaWorld’s three aquariums are Aquaria: World of Fishes, the Octopus Aquarium and Ray Aquarium.
For thrill seekers, SeaWorld’s biggest and newest draws are the Tidal Twister, the world’s first horizonal, infinity-loop roller coaster, and the Electric Eel, the tallest and fastest coaster in San Diego.
- SeaWorld announced in 2016 that would immediately end its killer whale breeding program and phase out theatrical orca shows, starting in San Diego. The orcas you see at SeaWorld today – 10 individuals at the time of publication – will be the last generation. The company also announced a $10 million pledge to fund research and conservation for orcas in the wild.
- SeaWorld’s Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation Program has over 50-plus years returned more than 17,000 animals that were ill, injured or stranded back to the wild. It also claims 36,000-plus rescues. A portion of every ticket sale goes toward these efforts.
- Adjacent to the park is the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, which conducts research on marine biology, education and outreach. SeaWorld employs its own research staff including scientists who have authored and co-authored hundreds of published papers in peer-reviewed journals.
- All animals at SeaWorld are fed on diets of sustainably sourced food. Further, all the food served in park restaurants is sustainably sourced and humanely raised.
SeaWorld San Diego
500 SeaWorld Drive, San Diego, CA 92109
Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography
The Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography is a delightful destination on a coastal hilltop in La Jolla. It’s also historic, dating to 1903, and has part of U.C. San Diego has some serious scientific credentials. The aquarium was established to communicate to the public the discoveries of Scripps Institution, which conducts marine research in local Pacific waters.
Birch Aquarium features about 60 habitats with over 3,000 animals representing 380 species. Its exhibits include the Hall of Fishes, home to creatures spanning the Pacific Northwest to Baja California and the Indo-Pacific, and Elasmo Beach, a sandy-bottomed tank based on the sea floor of La Jolla with its leopard sharks and rays. Kids love the Tide Pool Plaza with touch pools and volunteers on hand for demonstrations and questions. Also in the stunning outdoor area with panoramic ocean views is the interactive Boundless Energy playground. This area teaches kids about renewable energy via hands-on fun.
Scripps is a world leader in seahorse research, so don’t miss the fascinating “There’s Something About Seahorses” exhibit. The diversity of seahorses and seadragons on display is astounding.
- The institution’s mission: “At Birch Aquarium at Scripps, we connect understanding to protecting our ocean planet.”
- Birch Aquarium’s exhibits showcase the cutting-edge research conducted by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at U.C. San Diego. Key areas of research include seahorse and seadragon breeding and conservation programs, coral conservation, and groundbreaking studies of local leopard sharks.
- Birch Aquarium and its partners created the world’s first 3D-printed brace for the shell of an injured loggerhead sea turtle.
- Scripps Institution scientists conduct research all over the globe that’s vital to our understanding of the planet’s oceans and their inhabitants.
Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography
2300 Expedition Way, La Jolla, CA 92093
The Aquarium of the Pacific
As one of Long Beach’s premier attractions, the Aquarium of the Pacific attracts around 1.5 million visitors every year. The striking indoor/outdoor venue showcases species that inhabit the Pacific, dividing its galleries into Southern California and Baja, Northern Pacific and Tropical Pacific habitats. The aquarium also features the Ocean Theater with free 3D and educational films, an art gallery of multimedia works inspired by underwater worlds, and additional experiences (at extra cost) including whale watching, harbor tours and the chance to dive inside an aquarium.
Among the most dazzling exhibits at the Aquarium of the Pacific are Amber Forest, an enormous aquarium with giant kelp, garibaldi, rockfish, opaleye and other species found in local waters; and Shark Lagoon, where visitors are invited to gently touch rays and small sharks in a shallow pool. An especially memorable feature of the Northern Pacific Gallery is a diving birds’ habitat where puffins, auklets and guillemots gather on rocks or dive and dart underwater. Visitors have an unmatched perspective of these adorable birds’ above- and below-water activities via a slow-moving conveyor belt that passes by the habitat’s floor-to-ceiling glass front.
Funnily enough, the star of one of the aquarium’s most popular exhibits is not a marine creature but a colorful Australian parrot – the rainbow lorikeet. Inside the Lorikeet Forest aviary are hundreds of these beautiful birds. For the small cost of a cup of nectar you can feed the lorikeets. With a cup in hand, you’ll immediately attract one, two and perhaps a whole flock of birds who will land on outstretched arms, head and shoulders only to fly off as soon as the nectar is gone. Don’t miss this photo-worthy experience!
- The Aquarium of the Pacific is a 501(c)3 institution with a mission to instill a sense of wonder, respect and stewardship for the Pacific Ocean, its inhabitants and ecosystems.
- The aquarium hosts the Molina Animal Care Center, a veterinary hospital with a public exhibit.
- Since it was founded in 1998, the Aquarium has participated in more than 50 conservation and research projects.
- As part of its “greening of the aquarium” project, the institution has reduced its water usage and cut its carbon footprint by 25 percent, among other achievements.
- The aquarium has received a number of awards for its sustainability practices, including the Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award in 2012.
Aquarium of the Pacific
100 Aquarium Way, Long Beach, CA 90802
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