WRITTEN BY Alejandra Saragoza
Alejandra is the managing editor of California.com. She's a California native based in the Bay Area and enjoys writing about all things food and travel related. Her work can also be seen in Diablo, T…See full bio
As communities across the world and in California mitigate health risks during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are shifting our content focus and will not encourage any travel or social activities during this time. We will, however, continue to shine a light on and celebrate the many beautiful aspects of our State with the intention of being a source of inspiration and joy during this difficult period. We will also be providing tips and resources specifically related to the COVID-19 pandemic safety measures in the coming weeks. Thank you for reading, and stay safe.
From the sun-soaked beaches of Santa Monica to the fog-shrouded shores of San Francisco, California’s iconic coastline beckons to locals and tourists alike with its soft sands and shimmering waters. While many surf the swells of San Diego, sail along the Los Angeles coast, and enjoy seaside strolls in the Bay Area, not all get the opportunity to see the rich marine life that lies below the surface. Luckily, there are several state-of-the-art aquariums in California offering close encounters with awe-inspiring animals that inhabit the dense kelp forests, coral reef kingdoms, and mysterious depths of the Pacific Ocean—and beyond.
Whether you want to watch sharks glide through deep blue waters, explore the mesmerizing world of jellyfish, witness the bioluminescent depths of the little-known “twilight zone,” or get to know the colorful creatures that call California tidepools home, you can find one-of-a-kind marine life experiences at the Golden State’s numerous aquariums. (Even if you can’t visit in person, many aquariums offer virtual experiences and web cams, so you can still take in the beauty of nature from afar.)
Here are the five best aquariums in California that are sure to surprise and delight visitors of all ages.
Address: 886 Cannery Row, Monterey
Tickets: Adults ages 18–64, $49.95 | Youths ages 13–17, $39.95 | Seniors ages 65+, $39.95 | Children ages 5–12, $34.95 | Children ages 4 and under, free
Hours: Daily, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is arguably the most popular California aquarium. Home to over 200 exhibits and 80,000-plus plants and animals—including frolicking sea otters, fast-swimming sharks, pulsating jellies, and waddling penguins—the world-class institution gives curious land-dwellers a window to the wonders of the ocean. Nestled along the Monterey Bay, right on the outskirts of famous Cannery Row, the Monterey Bay Aquarium was the first to exhibit a living kelp forest when it debuted in 1984. The facility continues to focus on Monterey Bay marine habitats, offering glimpses into the worlds of sea creatures through educational shows, special exhibits, and close encounters.
The Monterey aquarium also helps to protect California’s ocean by rebuilding sea otter populations, transforming fisheries, and fighting against global warming. Whether you book a tour or explore on your own, you’re bound to leave with a new appreciation for the fascinating species that live under the sea.
Address: Pier 39, the Embarcadero & Beach Street, San Francisco
Tickets: Adults ages 13–64, $29.25 | Seniors ages 65+, $24.25 | Children ages 4–12, $19.25 | Children ages 3 and under, free
Hours: Daily, 10 a.m.–6 p.m.
Situated along the San Francisco waterfront, the acclaimed Aquarium of the Bay offers a truly immersive experience, thanks to two immense, transparent tunnels holding roughly 700,000 gallons of water that sustain 20,000-plus animal species. Walk through the captivating tunnels to witness sleek sharks, bat rays, schools of fish, giant Pacific octopus, and other sea creatures swimming all around you. It’s easy to feel as though you’re walking underwater. You can also take a behind-the-scenes tour, explore interactive exhibits, and enjoy up-close-and-personal encounters with tide pool animals.
Aside from highlighting the marine life of the San Francisco Bay and its neighboring waterways, the Aquarium of the Bay also shines a light on the environmental challenges facing the planet—such as climate change, plastic pollution, and habitat loss—and the ways humans can help, making it a must-see stop on any San Francisco getaway.
Address: 55 Music Concourse Drive, San Francisco
Hours: Monday–Saturday, 9:30 a.m.–5 p.m. | Sunday, 11 a.m.–5 p.m.
Also located in San Francisco, the Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences is one of the most biologically diverse and interactive aquariums in the world. Tucked away in Golden Gate Park, the aquarium boasts nearly 40,000 animals that represent more than 900 unique species, giving guests a glimpse into underwater and terrestrial habitats. From a living four-story rainforest to the bioluminescent depths of the ocean, the planet’s various vibrant ecosystems are on full display and waiting to be explored at the Steinhart Aquarium.
The institution has been committed to educating the public about the biodiversity of the Pacific since opening its doors in 1923, serving as the first public aquarium to display flashlight fish and coconut octopuses and to advance exploration of the ocean’s mysterious “twilight zone.” Examine starfish feet and sea urchin spines at the Discovery Tidepool; be dazzled by the underwater haunts of eels, anemones, rockfish, and more in the California Coast exhibit; meet the albino alligator known as Claude; and watch reef fish and giant rays dart through colorful forests of coral.
Address: 100 Aquarium Way, Long Beach
Tickets: Adults, $34.95 | Seniors ages 62+, $31.95 | Children ages 3–11, $24.95
Hours: Daily, 9 a.m.–6 p.m.
The Aquarium of the Pacific is the largest aquarium in Southern California and the fourth most-visited aquarium in the country—and it’s easy to see why. This award-winning establishment in the idyllic town of Long Beach houses roughly 12,000 animals and more than 100 exhibits that celebrate the planet’s largest and most diverse body of water: the Pacific Ocean. You can view an array of galleries representing the frigid waters of the Northern Pacific, temperate Baja and SoCal regions, and warm coral reefs and lagoons of the Tropical Pacific.
You also have the opportunity to feed and interact with animals, go on behind-the-scenes tours, see creature habitats, and even dive into an exhibit. (For a fee, dive-certified adults can take a dip in the Tropical Reef Habitat tank and get some face time with 600 tropical fish.) Beyond the compelling exhibits, the aquarium provides educational programs ranging from hands-on activities to lectures by leading scientists, so visitors can leave with a deeper understanding of the planet and the impressive diversity of life in the Pacific.
Address: 2300 Expedition Way, La Jolla
Tickets: Adults, $19.50 | Seniors ages 60+, $16.50 | Children ages 3–17, $15.00 | Children ages 2 and under, free
Hours: Daily, 9 a.m.–5 p.m.
Perched atop coastal bluffs overlooking the shores of La Jolla, a coveted beach town in San Diego County, Birch Aquarium features more than 5,000 fish in over 60 habitats from the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest to the tropical waters of Mexico—plus a museum featuring cutting edge research from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego. Since 1905, Scripps has remained dedicated to bridging the gap between scientific discoveries and the public’s understanding of how the oceans impact our daily lives, making it easy to dive deeper into the underwater world.
Stop by the aquarium to interact with hermit crabs, lobsters, starfish, and other tide pool organisms; come face to face with leopard sharks; experience numerous hands-on exhibits; view the stunning variety of marine life residing in the Pacific waters; and admire panoramic ocean views. Between the surrounding scenery and fascinating marine life, Birch Aquarium is bound to take your breath away.
What are your favorite aquariums in California? Let us know in the comments.
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