Blog · San Diego · Travel Guide: Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institute of Oceanography

Travel Guide: Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institute of Oceanography

October 16, 2023
Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institute of Oceanography

With 17 miles of coastline, the ocean and marine life is a major part of San Diego’s allure. And few attractions in San Diego showcase the wonders and beauty of the ocean and its inhabitants better than the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institute of Oceanography

Perched on a picturesque bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the aquarium is home to more than 60 habitats that provide an up-close look at all manner of fish and marine life, as well as exhibits designed to highlight the work of the scientists and experts from the renowned Scripps Institute of Oceanography.

In 2022, the beloved aquarium celebrated its 30th anniversary, and it continues to be a popular attraction for locals like myself and my son, and the steady stream of tourists who visit the city each year. 

Here’s an insider’s guide to the aquarium and why it’s considered a must-do San Diego attraction. 

What to see at the Birch Aquarium

The Birch Aquarium is a compact facility, but within its walls, you’ll come face to face with a diverse range of sea life. Plan to spend about two hours visiting. Here are some of the highlights you won’t want to miss.

Little Blue Penguins

Famous for being the world’s smallest penguins, the Birch Aquarium has the distinction of being the only location on the West Coast where you can view Little Blue Penguins. 

One of the aquarium’s newest exhibits, the penguins live in a 2,900-square-foot habitat complete with burrows, a sandy beach, and an 18,000-gallon pool. And in keeping with the aquarium’s emphasis on showcasing the research of practitioners in the field, the penguin exhibit also includes an interactive research station where you can learn first-hand about the efforts at Scripps to help the penguins, whose future is threatened by climate change.

One of the best times to visit the Little Blue Penguins is at 10 a.m. when they’re being fed. Not only will the animals be far more active, but the feedings offer an opportunity to learn more about the colony from aquarium staff and get all of your questions answered. If you miss the morning feeding, there’s also a Penguins 101 presentation each day at 3 p.m. during which staff share details about how the husbandry team cares for the penguins.

For an even more memorable and engaging way to experience the exhibit, book a behind-the-scenes penguin tour. It’s a little pricey but includes admission to the aquarium and a one-hour experience exploring the penguin habitat, as well as a visit to the aquarium’s Penguin Care and Conservation Center. 

Hall of Fishes

Hall of Fishes

The Hall of Fishes is in many ways the heart of Birch Aquarium. 

Here you’ll find numerous habitats including the wildly popular giant kelp forest, a vivid underwater world that keeps young visitors mesmerized with its enormous strands of kelp that wave to and fro in the water’s current. The 70,000-gallon, two-story habitat is inhabited by sharks, bright orange Garibaldi, and Moray eels.

Another visually stunning stop in the Hall of Fishes is the cluster of habitats devoted to jellies including Moon jellies and Comb jellies. Watching the jellies produce, emit, and refract light as they glide through their tanks is another visitor favorite at the aquarium. 

And while in this part of the aquarium, be sure to also stop by the Loggerhead Sea Turtle habitat to say hello to the resident rescued turtle. Turtle feedings take place throughout the week on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays at 2:30 p.m.

Seadragons & Seahorses

Seadragons & Seahorses

The Seadragons & Seahorses exhibit at Birch Aquarium is easily one of the most memorable parts of the aquarium for my family. Throughout my son’s childhood, we’ve returned to this space again and again to sit peacefully and marvel at the magical and otherworldly seadragons and the tiny seahorses. 

At 18 feet wide and nine feet tall, the Birch Aquarium’s seadragon habitat is one of the largest in the world. And the Weedy Seadragons, which at first glance look more like a plant than animal, are captivating to observe. The diminutive seahorses are equally fascinating.

The aquarium has dedicated an enormous amount of energy and resources over the years to the care and conservation of both fish, which like the penguins, have a precarious future amid climate change. About 13 different species of seahorses have been bred and raised by the aquarium. They’ve also bred some 4,000 babies that have been dispersed amid 100 other facilities.

Like the penguins exhibit, it’s well worth booking a behind-the-scenes tour of the seadragons and seahorses to truly immerse yourself in the work being done by the aquarium. For the $95 ticket price, you’ll get general admission to the aquarium, as well as an up-close look at seahorse babies and the breeding program. 

Tidepool Plaza

One last not-to-miss stop, Tidepool Plaza, which is located outside the back of the aquarium, offers sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and coastline. Not only is the plaza a great place for a photograph of Southern California’s stunning coastline, but it’s also the location of tide pools inhabited by sea anemones, sea stars, and sea urchins. The pools were designed to be kid-friendly and offer young visitors (or visitors of any age for that matter) the opportunity to gently touch and hold some of the animals living here.

Local tip: Depending on the time of year you visit, you may be able to catch a glimpse of passing whales in the ocean below from Tidepool Plaza. And year-round, the plaza is an excellent place to spy dolphins.

How to visit the Birch Aquarium with kids

The Birch Aquarium offers an unforgettable educational experience for kids of all ages. Between the regularly scheduled animal feedings, the tide pools where kids can hold and touch sea animals, and the behind-the-scenes tours, there’s plenty of opportunities to engage even the youngest visitors. 

In addition to the behind-the-scenes tours for the penguin and seahorses exhibits, there’s also an octopus tour (available to those 8 and older) that allows visitors to get a closer look at the resident Giant Pacific octopus.

And don’t miss Blue Beach! Located in the aquarium’s South Plaza, this newer kid-friendly space features outdoor games so young visitors can blow off some steam. 

Tips for Visiting Birch Aquarium

The aquarium is one of many attractions located in the La Jolla neighborhood (Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is another), which is about 15 minutes north of downtown San Diego. There’s ample free three-hour parking at the Birch Aquarium, making it hassle-free if you’re driving.

Admission to the aquarium is $24.50 for adults and $19.95 for those 3-17 years old. The cost of admission for senior citizens, students with identification, and military members is $22.95. You can purchase tickets ahead online, but you won’t have any trouble just walking up and getting them the same day.

Ready for San Diego’s aquarium?

With its unique and diverse marine habitats, it’s easy to see why the Birch Aquarium has attracted everyone from President Barack Obama to actor Jim Carrey over the years. The aquarium not only provides a vivid and memorable look at ocean life, but also the challenges it currently faces amid climate change. 
Looking for other popular attractions in San Diego? Don’t miss our guide to exploring the San Diego Zoo, another one of the city’s most iconic attractions.