Who doesn’t love an aquarium? Aquariums offer an opportunity to gaze into a different world — more specifically, an underwater world. So, with miles and miles of famous coastline, it’s no surprise that California has numerous awesome aquariums. Below, we make our picks for the best aquariums in California.
Arguably the most famous aquarium in the world, even before it became the main inspiration for Finding Dory, the Monterey Bay Aquarium tops our list for the best aquariums in California (and may top the list for the country or worldwide). First of all, the physical aquarium is an impressive building at the end of the historic Cannery Row of Monterey. Inside, the tanks blend seamlessly with the industrial feel of the architecture, and outside, the aquarium keeps constant sightlines of the stunning coast. The sea otters, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s most popular inhabitants, are always on display and enjoy playing in front of guests. The cool part is that it’s not uncommon for patrons to watch the aquarium’s otters and then walk outside to see wild otters lounging in the offshore kelp forests. Monterey Bay Aquarium is also the only aquarium to have successfully rehabilitated a dreaded great white shark in captivity. However, they no longer keep one because of the complications the species often experience when not in the open ocean.
Along with the Queen Mary, the Aquarium of the Pacific is a focal point of Long Beach’s Rainbow Harbor, an area that has been the subject of a revitalization effort that began in the 90s. Nowadays, the Aquarium of the Pacific welcomes nearly 1.6 million visitors per year. The main hall of the aquarium is a stirring sight as a life-size blue whale replica, about 100 feet long, hangs over patrons and ends at the Blue Cavern exhibit. This exhibit is a three-story tank that presents an accurate depiction of ocean life off the coast of Santa Catalina Island, a nearby island often accessed through tour companies in Long Beach. Aquarium of the Pacific has all the crowd favorites like an extraordinary seal and sea lion exhibit, sea otters, tropical fish, sea turtles, and sharks but also has more unusual spots like a Lorikeet Forest where guests can get up close and personal with the colorful birds. For a few dollars, extra visitors can even feed them nectar. Long Beach’s aquatic jewel also has some of the best touch tanks in the world, some with tide pool creatures like crabs, sea urchins, and anemones, but also ones with more exciting critters like small sharks and stingrays.
The Birch Aquarium is the exploration center put on by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California- San Diego. Scripps has historically been one of the best schools for studying marine biology and is also an industry leader in research. The aquarium itself showcases marine life that stretches the West Coast of North America, from frigid Alaskan seas down to the Mexican tropics.
Approximately four times a day, Scripps has public feeding viewings. The shark, sea turtle, and giant sea bass feedings are always popular spectacles. The aquarium building sits upon a bluff over the Pacific, in the scenic North San Diego county town of La Jolla (one of our Best Beaches in California) and even when they are done with exploring the halls of fish, visitors enjoy sitting around on Birch’s outdoor Tide Pool Plaza, which takes advantage of the abundant views.
The smallest representative on the list, the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium makes it because of its quality exhibits, location, and environmental impact. The 100 various species on display here are all locals to the Santa Monica Bay, the body of water that comprises much of Los Angeles’s shoreline from Malibu (location of a few of our Best Beaches in Los Angeles) to the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Because of its association with the city’s oceans, Santa Monica Pier Aquarium is one of the most environmentally active aquariums in the country — they make conservation a central pillar of their business. While exploring the aquarium itself will not take long, visitors have endless entertainment options right out the door. Santa Monica Pier is one of the most iconic images in Los Angeles and tourists can enjoy ocean views from the Ferris wheel, classic carnival games on the pier, and lots of nearby restaurants.
Housed in a building designed by the legendary architect Frank Gehry, San Pedro’s Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, much like the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, focuses specifically on the marine life that calls Southern California’s waters home. Its coastal location between the Port of Los Angeles and Cabrillo Beach Coastal Park gives it access to natural tide pools, which the aquarium uses for education opportunities and to monitor the health of the local seas. Besides being a quality place to see marine life, Cabrillo Marine Aquarium is a leader, in the area, for providing interactive tours and field trips for local schools and youth. Also, for those interested in marine biology and conservation, Cabrillo holds an ongoing lecture series that brings in experts and professors from nearby universities.
Since the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium is only about 100 miles to the south, San Francisco’s Steinhart Aquarium, along with the Aquarium of the Bay on Pier 39, can often be overlooked when people speak of the best marine exhibits in Northern California. This aquarium, located at the California Academy of Sciences, is impressive in its own right. Steinhart houses 40,000 live animals from some 900 various species. Also, the San Francisco aquarium representative has an exhibit titled “The Philippine Coral Reef”, which is the largest and deepest indoor reef in the entire world. The aquarium features African penguins, a butterfly pavilion, deep ocean flashlight fish, and the most popular tenant of Steinhart, Claude, the albino alligator.