Two Decades of Discovery: Man and marine life continues to connect at Birch Aquarium

By Dave Schwab

Toasting its 20th anniversary on Expedition Way with a yearlong celebration in 2012, Birch Aquarium at Scripps’ mission of interpreting ocean research by presenting it in educational (and entertaining) ways continues.

The aquarium will mark Year 20 with an admission discount for local residents and plans for a new exhibit exploring the deep-ocean.

“We take the complex, scientific evidence and discoveries occurring at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) and translate it into exhibits, programs, and other accessible vehicles for the public — everyone from pre-schoolers to elders,” said Debbie Zmarzly, aquarium science specialist.

Birch’s executive director Nigella Hillgarth noted that

the aquarium’s mission is threefold: education, conservation, and connecting people with ocean science via interactive programming.

Birch has been a major San Diego attraction during its 20 years at Expedition Way. Visitor surveys and interactions suggest the favorite aquarium exhibits are the Kelp Forest, the Tide-Pool Plaza and "There's Something About Seahorses."

“Parents with small children rave about the Boundless Energy exhibit, too, because it's a place for kids to expel their ... well, energy,” said Jennifer Crawford, aquarium communications director. “The water tables have also always been a huge hit with parents/children.”

Zmarzly talked about the difference between the old Scripps Aquarium-Museum that served the Institution for 40 years, and the new facility on Expedition Way which opened in 1992.

“It was very much an Oceanography 101 textbook,” she said of the old aquarium. “Now the building is sort of the gateway to the SIO, showcasing the most cutting-edge types of research they’re doing.”

Hillgarth added that the old aquarium didn’t connect the public with the actual kind of research Scripps scientists are doing today. “Now we’re educating the public on the impact humans are having on the environment — and the oceans are a very large part of that.”

Hillgarth said that lack of understanding causes a disconnect between people and their environment. “Most people don’t know that 40 percent of the Earth’s oxygen comes from the oceans, and that damaging our oceans is going to directly affect us,” she said. “They don’t realize the actual air they breathe is impacted by how we treat the oceans.”

Zmarzly said the aquarium’s job is to “reconnect” people with the ocean by revealing the co-dependent relationship.

“We thought the ocean was a limitless environment we couldn’t possibly impact because of its enormity. Now we’re showing the impact we are having, helping people understand their role in that, and how they can actually have a positive impact.”

The aquarium is offering half-off admission to residents living in ZIP codes 91901-92199 (with valid ID), on the 20th of every month through September, limit two children per paid adult. “It’s a way to say thank you to residents and invite them to rediscover our facility,” Hillgarth said.

A future exhibit will feature the mysteries of the deep ocean, because “we know more about the surface of Mars than we do about the bottom of the ocean.”

Zmarzly said the exhibit would use the latest in digital technology, which “makes it easier and more exciting to portray the oceans as well as explore them.”

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