Scripps Institution Of Oceanography: Birch Aquarium


Photos By Timothy Wong/Guardian

Take a smooth bike ride down Expedition Way off North Torrey Pines Road, and you’ll find yourself gazing up at a 10-foot seascape, painted behind an even larger whale sculpture. The entrance to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s Birch Aquarium — directly across from the Splash Cafe, with ample bike parking alongside it — feeds into a large gallery. A swarm of volunteers await you there, hoping for a chance to spew infinite knowledge on the aquarium’s exhibits — including the Hall of Fishes, the Scripps Explorers Gallery on Climate Change and the Education Courtyard.

A dark hallway just to the right of the Pacific Sardine tank — thick with shimmering, silver-scaled fish — will lead you into the Hall of Fishes. Here, leopard sharks, iridescently orange girabaldi fish and octopi serve as appetizers for the main course: a 13,000-gallon kelp forest from floor to ceiling, filled to the brim with stingrays, shovel-nose guitar fish and an awesome 400-pound bass.

The majority of the Hall of Fishes is devoted to sea life from California coastal habitats, from the Pacific Northwest to Baja. But if you’re looking for a getaway, skip the local educational displays and check out the small aquarium section devoted to tropical specimen.

Or, those hoping to unleash their inner fourth-grader can take a field trip to the tide pools to gawk at some of the slimier ocean stuffs. Goobery sea cucumbers, scuttling hermit crabs and bright seastars are all within arm’s reach. And even in the off-chance that the pools aren’t so hoppin’, an authentic, brisk ocean breeze makes it cool to be chill.

The aquarium’s third wing focuses on recent research from Scripps, with interactive displays and games for all those visitors who are actually four-year-olds. To avoid a trail of sticky fingers, escape to the “2050 Television Newsroom,” where you can broadcast your own weather report and prediction of what the world may be like in the future.

But if you become overwhelmed with mental images of a barren planet, seek refuge in the next display: “There’s Something About Seahorses.” Though the aquarium’s newest exhibit is only about a quarter of the size of the fishes hall, its freakish beauty makes up for it.

If you’ve only seen seahorses in National Geographic spreads, you’ll be shocked to learn how small these peculiar creatures are: The dwarf species measures just over half an inch. The Scripps’ captive-breeding portion of the exhibit contains three tanks with tiny baby seahorses tightly clasping their tails to blades of grass in simulated current. Even better is the exhibit’s finale — a tank full of stunning sea dragons. If you had been mindlessly wandering, the dragon display will give the trip its sense of purpose. Playing weird, monstrous uncle to the seahorse, the dragons are orange- and red-striped creatures with translucent leaf-like appendages protruding from every angle of their bodies.

Cool down with the few remaining tanks filled with some of Birch Aquarium’s best and brightest — like the red- and yellow-striped pipefish or the Pacific Spiny Lumpsucker — who could double as a ping-pong-ball.