Want to see beneath the waves without getting wet? Aquariums offer a fascinating glimpse at the underwater world, and often well beyond. They’re ideal for learning about marine life without putting on a wetsuit or other gear. In California, you’ll find all sorts of aquariums to visit, bringing the opportunity to watch playful sea otters, penguins, sharks, octopus, sea lions, colorful fish and so much more. These are the very best options in California, from San Francisco to San Diego.
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Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey
One of the most highly acclaimed aquariums in the entire country, the Monterey Bay Aquarium along California’s central coast is one of the few in the world to showcase species like yellowfin tuna, huge bluefin and sunfish. A must-see in Monterey, it sits within a former sardine cannery on Cannery Row and features many large pools and tanks showcasing marine life that resides here along the coast, with more than 600 species of plants and animals. There’s a giant kelp forest that can be seen from multiple levels, while the Open Sea galleries are spectacularly mesmerizing with all sorts of creatures, from sea otters and stingrays to jellyfish. A unique tank was constructed to hold the jellies, with a circular flow of water suspending them that creates an especially jaw-dropping sight.
Golden Gate Park/Steinhart Aquarium at CA Academy of Sciences, San Francisco
Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences, which is sometimes referred to as the Golden Gate Aquarium, is home to nearly 40,000 animals that represent 900 species. One of the most biologically diverse and interactive aquariums on the planet, visitors can enjoy an unprecedented view of underwater and terrestrial habitats. It includes everything from species not displayed anywhere else in the world to exhibits featuring cutting-edge research in little-known ocean ecosystems. The scientific dive program includes a daily dive show, and in the Discovery Tidepool, you can touch coastal creatures that call the state’s tide pools home. There’s a colorful reef with giant rays and a popular swamp habitat where Claude, an albino alligator, lives.
Birch Aquarium, San Diego
Part of the Scripps Institute for Oceanography at UC San Diego, Birch Aquarium showcases discoveries made by Scripps scientists related to ocean science and climate. Established well over a century ago, it’s home to some 5,000 animals representing 380 species displayed in exhibits like Shark Reef, the Hall of Fishes, Coral Reef, There’s Something About Seahorses and Feeling the Heat: The Climate Challenge. Visitors can discover an impressive array of marine life in the Pacific, traveling from the chilly waters of the Pacific Northwest and the California coast, south to Mexico’s tropical waters and across to the Indo-Pacific coral reefs. Watch feedings to observe animal behaviors, including sharks, and step into the shoes of the Scripps Oceanography scientists to learn about global research activities through Expedition at Sea.
Heal the Bay Aquarium, Santa Monica
While the Santa Monica Aquarium is relatively small, it’s a great one to visit while on the famous Santa Monica Pier, just steps away from the carnival rides, games, and snack bars, right below the carousel. It provides a great look at the underwater community of this famous SoCal beach town. It has 100 local species from cute sea hares to spooky moray eels, seahorses, crabs, sea urchins and colorful fish. There’s a simulated tide exhibit revealing how anemones and juvenile fish do their own version of surfing and daily activities for kids like Microscopic Safari.
Aquarium of the Pacific, Long Beach
A top attraction in Long Beach, the Aquarium of the Pacific hosts animals from the Pacific Ocean, with more than 500 species from the Tropical Pacific, Baja and SoCal regions. In addition to all sorts of different fish, there are penguins, turtles, sea otters and sea lions. There’s even an area that displays colorful Lorikeet birds. Visitors can watch birds, seals, and sea lions perform, and kids can touch everything from sea urchins to zebra sharks. There are often themed festivals and special weekend events hosted here too.
Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, San Pedro
Located in the Los Angeles community of San Pedro, the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium opened way back in 1935 as a collection of marine specimens stored in the Cabrillo Beach Bathhouse. Nearly 15 years later when the captain of the Cabrillo Beach lifeguards, John Olguin, became its director, he decided to help popularize the aquarium by giving impromptu tours to school groups and starting an evening program of viewing and learning about the unique and strange mating practices of grunions on the beach. Today, guests can still come to check out the seasonal “grunion run,” which is when tiny fish arrive at high tide to fertilize and bury their eggs in the sand. The museum has several areas, including an exhibit hall, aquatic nursery and research library.
Manhattan Roundhouse Aquarium, Manhattan Beach
The Roundhouse Marine Studies Lab and Aquarium is an aquarium popular with school groups that provides a good glimpse at the fantastic underwater world at the end of the Manhattan Beach Pier in the Los Angeles area. It has tanks with a variety of local fish and creatures that can be touched like urchins and sea stars.
Aquarium of the Bay, San Francisco
Located on famous Pier 39 in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf District along San Francisco Bay, the Aquarium of the Bay, a Smithsonian Affiliate, is unique in that it has tunnels the length of a football field meandering through big tanks filled with saltwater and all sorts of marine species. There are an incredible 20,000 creatures here, from tiny animals to massive ones like sharks, including 100 unique species indigenous to the bay. Visits start with an intro film, then bring guests through an area with three pools. That’s followed by an elevator ride down to the main attraction, the two 360-foot-long tanks filled with filtered water from the bay.