California’s Best Aquariums: Sea Otters, Penguins, and Sharks, Oh My!

You’ve been to the beaches of the Golden State, now discover what’s under those rolling waves and peaceful coves.

California’s Best Aquariums: Sea Otters, Penguins, and Sharks, Oh My!

You can see the world’s largest living indoor coral reef in Golden Gate Park.

Photo by Will Love; courtesy of California Academy of Sciences

From the scenic beaches of San Diego all the way up to misty San Francisco Bay, California’s coastline tempts locals and travelers alike to wonder: What lies beneath? While many West Coast visitors are familiar with animal attractions like the San Diego Zoo, travelers are also drawn to explore sea life beyond the surf at the state’s best aquariums. These institutions seek to connect curious land-dwellers to the ocean, from shallow tide pools, into coral reefs, and even further into the mysterious deep. Through their exhibits, we gain a better understanding of the planet. California boasts some of the world’s finest aquariums, collectively exposing millions of visitors each year to the diverse sea life of not only the Pacific Ocean but also of waters near and far.

Here, moving up the coast from San Diego to San Francisco, are the best aquariums in the state.

See the sea’s cephalopods at the Birch Aquarium.

See the sea’s cephalopods at the Birch Aquarium.

Courtesy of Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography

1. Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography

San Diego

Why: Over 100 years of scientific expertise means a roster of diverse, interactive exhibits.

At Birch Aquarium at Scripps, visitors can soak in sea views, witness animal feedings, and dive into (up to their elbows, anyway) living tide pools at the Preuss Tide Pool Plaza. Since 1905, Scripps has been dedicated to bridging the gap between scientific findings and the public’s understanding of how the oceans impact our day-to-day lives. Today, with an inspiring location overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the Birch Aquarium gives visitors the opportunity to see over 5,000 species, keeping a specific focus on Pacific-dwelling fish. If admiring ocean life in all its forms leaves visitors looking to delve a little deeper, the aquarium’s museum highlights discoveries by Scripps Oceanography scientists. The level of oceanographic research and impressive findings make it no wonder that more than 460,000 people come to visit Birch Aquarium each year.

2. Aquarium of the Pacific

Long Beach

Why: Swim with the fishes.

Come to Aquarium of the Pacific, the largest aquarium in Southern California and the fourth most-visited in the country, to see its extraordinary selection of aquatic activities and more than 50 exhibits. Not only can aquarium-goers feed and interact with animals but they can also enjoy behind-the-scenes tours and even dive into an exhibit. (For a fee, four dive-certified adults can take a dip in the Tropical Reef Habitat tank each afternoon to get some face-mask-time with 600 tropical fish.)

Aquarium of the Pacific is true to its name: The more than 11,000 resident sea creatures show off the diversity of life in the Pacific Ocean. More serious programming includes lectures and panels led by scientists.

3. Cabrillo Marine Aquarium

San Pedro

Why: The world’s largest collection of Southern California marine life is on display in a Frank Gehry–designed building.

Its perch above beautiful Cabrillo Beach Coastal Park makes the setting of the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium almost as stunning as the sea life inside. The aquarium, known as CMA, has been attracting visitors since it first opened in 1935, and its expanded 21,000-square-foot building, designed by Frank Gehry and opened in 1981, adds architecture fans to visitor numbers, too. CMA boasts the largest collection of Southern California marine life in the world.

Outside the building, you can interact with underwater creatures in a tide pool touch-tank, and inside, in the award-winning Exploration Center, get a fish-eye-view in a crawl-in aquarium without getting wet. In the Aquatic Nursery, which doubles as a working laboratory, visitors can observe active scientific research.

4. Santa Monica Pier Aquarium

Santa Monica

Why: This hyperlocal aquarium has preservation as its mission.

The aquarium may seem like just another attraction at Santa Monica Pier, one of the most-popular tourist stops in Los Angeles, but it’s much more. The aquarium, on the ground level beside the pier, is operated by Heal the Bay, an environmental nonprofit “dedicated to making the coastal waters and watersheds of Greater Los Angeles safe, healthy and clean.”

In keeping with that mission, the aquarium lets visitors observe the sea life they otherwise may not see under the surf of the bay. Exhibits throw the spotlight on sea horses, moon jellies, rays, sharks, eels, halibut, and sea stars, among other local celebrities. An Aquadopt program allows admirers to “adopt” an animal by providing a donation that will care for and feed their favorite aquarium resident for a year.

Find out what’s just beyond those beautiful Santa Barbara beaches.

Find out what’s just beyond those beautiful Santa Barbara beaches.

Courtesy of Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center

5. Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center

Santa Barbara

Why: Get to touch local sea life—from rays to sea urchins and even sharks.

The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History opened its Sea Center in 1987 to expand its mission and provide a hands-on educational experience with the sea life in abundance along the coastline. With an emphasis on the mammals and fish found in the Santa Barbara Channel, the museum offers visitors close encounters with the likes of rays, sea urchins, and, yes, sharks. You can look and you can touch—using what the Sea Center describes as “a gentle two-finger touch” to connect with all of these creatures. On the Center’s wet deck, oceanographic tools give everyone a chance to play with and explore local aquatic life.

Graceful sea jellies mesmerize visitors to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Graceful sea jellies mesmerize visitors to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Photo by Lisa Corson

6. Monterey Bay Aquarium


Why: Get up-close-and-personal with sea otters and penguins during daily feedings.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium, arguably the most famous aquarium in the United States, continues to inspire visitors and conservationists more than 30 years after opening. Nearly 200 permanent exhibits introduce visitors to 35,000 creatures of over 550 species, a compelling reminder of our profound connection to the oceans. If the depth and quality of information available here aren’t enough to entice you to book a trip, the aquarium’s wildly popular sea otter and penguin feedings may do the trick.

The show put on by the playful animals as they are fed and put through training exercises by expert aquarists is a big reason the aquarium is the number one attraction on the Monterey peninsula. If you can’t make it to Monterey, don’t fret; the aquarium’s website streams live feeds from cameras trained on penguins, sea otters, turtles, and sharks.

7. Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences

San Francisco

Why: Explore the world’s largest living indoor coral reef.

Almost a century ago, when the Steinhart Aquarium opened at the California Academy of Sciences, it sought to be an innovator in the field, moving beyond simple entertainment into a more scientific purpose. It was the first to display creatures like coconut octopuses and to accomplish feats like building the world’s largest living indoor coral reef. Now home to nearly 40,000 live animals, the Steinhart Aquarium is one of the most biologically diverse aquariums the world and one of the best aquariums in California.

Be part of the action at the Aquarium of the Bay.

Be part of the action at the Aquarium of the Bay.

Courtesy of the Aquarium of the Bay

8. Aquarium of the Bay

San Francisco

Why: See-through tunnels get visitors inside the tanks.

In the most popular exhibit at the Aquarium of the Bay, transparent tunnels allow visitors to walk through the center of a massive tank filled with Northern California aquatic life—a truly immersive experience. This world-renowned aquarium on San Francisco’s waterfront concentrates on the marine animals of the San Francisco Bay and the ecosystems within it. The aquarium is home to over 20,000 marine animals from the region, including jellyfish, octopuses, otters, and, in the adjacent Sea Lion Center, local wild California sea lions. With a focus on teaching about environmental challenges like plastic pollution, and showcasing fish in transparent touch pools, this is definitely a fun and worthwhile stop on Pier 39.

>>Next: Make it a Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip

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