Birch Aquarium at Scripps (La Jolla, CA)
San Diego has a tremendous amount of family-friendly activities, but one of my favorites is one of the smallest, the Birch Aquarium at Scripps. Its size is perfect for little kids with little legs, yet it's big enough to deliver all of the exhibits we come to expect from an aquarium and a few more. Along with a variety of habitats and exhibits, the aquarium features a 2-story giant kelp tank, a seahorse nursery, an outdoor water play area, and touch tanks with an amazing view of the Pacific ocean.
The view, you guys. The. View.
About the Birch Aquarium
The Scripps Institution of Oceanography was founded in 1903, mainly by UC Berkeley professor William E. Ritter, and named after the Scripps siblings Ellen Browning Scripps (philanthropist) and E. W. Scripps (newspaper tycoon) who helped fund and support the project. The Scripps Institution later joined the University of California system in 1912 and today, as part of UC San Diego, has become one of the oldest and largest department for ocean research in the world.
Since its very beginning, public outreach has been an important part of the Scripps Institution. The original aquarium opened in 1905, and while it's changed location multiple times, the institution has maintained its commitment to the public ever since.
A Tangent About Seahorses
I mentioned at the beginning that the aquarium has a seahorse nursery. You didn't think I could just drop something like that and walk away, did you? Of course not. The aquarium has been rearing seahorses for the last 20 years as part of the Seahorse Propagation Program. My favorite part of the seahorse exhibit is the multiple tanks of seahorse babies and juveniles that are on display, each dated with their birthday. It's interesting to see how quickly (or how slowly, really) seahorses grow.
Perhaps you've already heard that seahorse males are the ones giving birth. And perhaps you've seen a video of it too. But more basic than that, what's a seahorse anyway?
Is it even a fish?
Now that I ask that, you're second-guessing your answer, right? It's not that obvious from the look of them!
But yes, seahorses are fish. Really, really strange fish. They don't have scales, instead, they have rings of bony plates covered with skin. And of course, compared to most fish, the seahorse's fins are all wrong. The pectoral fins are on the sides of its head and used to steer. The dorsal fin flutters to propel the seahorse forward, and it lacks a tail fin altogether. They can also become more or less spiky depending on their environment.
Back to the whole "male giving birth" thing, what? Huh? Why? The female produces eggs which she deposits into the male's pouch, a process during which the male also fertilizes the eggs. The eggs then embed themselves into the tissue of male's pouch, taking nutrient from both the egg yolk and the father. The eggs eventually hatch inside the pouch where they remain to grow a bit more.
After a gestation period of about 2-4 weeks, the dad gets contractions and ejects anything from a few babies to 2,500 babies! This may sound like a lot, but remember fish are horrible parents. Survival rates of seahorse babies through adulthood is about 0.5%... Tough luck.
So, why do the moms have it so easy in this species? Well, it's not all cupcakes and rainbows for her either. A great deal of energy goes into making these eggs, and research shows that twice as much energy goes into the production of the eggs than in the gestation provided by the male. So ultimately, she's still working harder. Surprising no one.
By passing the job of gestation to the father, the female is free to make more eggs more often. This way, as soon as the father has birthed the babies, she can pass off a new batch of eggs all ready to go, thus resulting in a much shorter reproduction cycle than if the female was responsible for both production and gestation of the eggs.
But anyway, back to Birch, where I assume the survival rates are orders of magnitude better than in the wild. The seahorses born and raised at the Birch aquarium go off to zoos and aquarium across the world, so be on the lookout of Californian seahorses saying "dude" and "awesome" a lot.
What Can Kids Do?
Obviously, this is an aquarium so there's plenty of fish and creatures for kids to look at. And don't forget the aforementioned touch tanks with the killer views.
The Birch Aquarium also offers a variety of feedings and shows that change from day to day. In the Giant Kelp Tank, there's a diver show a few times a week, where the diver feeds the animals and answer guest questions. On other days it could be shark feeding, tidepool feeding, etc.
An outdoor play area, Boundless Energy, explores renewable energy with water-themed hands-on activities like the one pictured below. I had to drag my children away from this area when it was time for lunch, they did not want to leave! There's also a small play area indoors with a mirrored wall and sea-related puppets.
Special events and programs include SEA Days (Science, Exploration, Adventure) where Scripps researchers talk about their work, whale watching trips, tidepool exploring at the beach with trained naturalists, and more depending on the time of the year. For teens, there's an Explorer's Club where they get to visit the aquarium behind-the-scenes with Scripps scientists.
Tips and Tricks
Parking is free for 3 hours, which should be plenty of time for your visit.
Family membership for a family of 4 isn't much more than the price of the tickets combined and it includes an extra 4 guests passes, so it's definitively advantageous if you think you might attend more than once or if you want to bring grandparents or out-of-town visitors along.
And as with most activities in SoCal, bring sunscreen! Two of the exhibits your kids are likely going to want to spend the most time in, the Boundless Energy play area and the touch tanks, are located outdoors with limited shade.
Spend the morning at the Birch Aquarium, then take the 10-minute drive to La Jolla for a posh lunch with San Diego's well-to-do. Or save the money and bring a picnic to enjoy at Scripps Park. After that, spend the afternoon appreciating sea life in the "wild" with a walk from La Jolla Cove to the Children's Pool.
Don't be fooled by the name, the "children" at the Children's Pool have been replaced seals! The seawall was originally built in the 1930s to provide a safe swimming area protected from the waves for children. It didn't take long for harbor seals and sea lions to catch on and take over the beach as a safe spot to bask in the sun and even give birth to their pups.
There's much more to see than sea mammals... Take off your shoes, roll up your pants, and explore the tidepools for other forms of life.
Really, is it even possible to take a bad picture of this place?
References And Further Reading
Pregnant—And Still Macho, Susan Milius.