Birch Aquarium to mark 25th year with a family event Sept. 16 in La Jolla; Scripps Institution of Oceanography hatching plans to expand the popular facility

Birch Aquarium — a science center that frequently suffers from crowding due to its small size (64,000 square feet) and high popularity (nearly 500,000 visitors last year) — may be expanded to accommodate at least 100,000 additional guests per year.

The aquarium is run by UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO), which is close to choosing an architect to prepare conceptual drawings for expansion. The drawings could be ready by next summer.

A public aquarium has been part of SIO since 1905 with the Little Green Laboratory at La Jolla Cove. Several iterations of aquariums at Scripps preceded the opening of Birch Aquarium on Sept. 16, 1992 at 2300 Expedition Way. The marine life museum will mark its 25th anniversary on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017 with a plethora of special programming from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The expansion project is in its early stages. But current and past Scripps officials have said expansion could cost in the vicinity of $20 million. The aquarium needs an expansion and overhaul to cope with its own success.

Annual attendance has increased by roughly 100,000 over the past decade, partly because staff is doing a better job of highlighting the research that Scripps scientists are doing in such exotic places as Antarctica.

Over the past year, family memberships have increased by roughly 3,500 — reaching the 10,000 mark. The crowds have added to the building’s physical stress, causing problems.

In 2014, Birch Aquarium had to close its popular kelp forest for a month to conduct major repairs. Additional repairs were needed earlier this year. The recent problems occurred as the aquarium was emerging from a period of deficit spending.

Harry Helling, the aquarium’s executive director, said it has returned to the black, financially. But it will have to move slowly to pull off an expansion. “We would need to raise money, gain community support, and go through the regulatory agencies, including the California Coastal Commission,” he explained.

The aquarium is exploring the idea of doing the expansion in phases to avoid having to close the facility.

Birch Aquarium has always highlighted the work of SIO researchers. But the subject has received increased attention since Margaret Leinen became the institute’s director in 2013. She wants the public to have a better understanding of SIO, which does everything from studying climate change at the world’s poles to monitoring the health of coral reefs in remote areas of the Pacific.

The aquarium has addressed the problem, in part, by opening a large interactive exhibit that focuses on the Sally Ride, the institute’s newest research ship. The vessel is named after the late astronaut Sally Ride, the first American woman to travel in space. Ride joined the UC San Diego faculty after her NASA career, and became a beloved figure in San Diego for running an education program aimed at children.

The new Ride exhibit lets visitors take a virtual tour of the ship, and provides video overviews of its research, including seafloor mapping.

More recently, the aquarium opened “Research in Action,” a small exhibit that replicates life on a coral reef. The exhibit is billed as a “working laboratory” where Scripps scientists can test equipment and techniques before they go to sea.

“The San Diego community has come to rely on Birch Aquarium as a source for information about all of Scripps Oceanography research, not just a place to see marine organisms,” said Leinen, an oceanographer.


Aquarium Party: Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017

25 Years on the Hill: Birch Aquarium’s 25th anniversary celebration runs 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017 at 2300 Expedition Way in La Jolla.

Schedule: Day-long Scavenger Hunt (Information Desk check-in), fish-printing craft (Education Courtyard), Wall of Fishes and Favorite Photos/Memories Slideshow (Galleria);

• 10-10:45 a.m. and 12:15 to 1 p.m. Music with Hullabaloo, face-painting (Boundless Energy exhibit);

• 10:45 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. Music with Lee Coulter, 1-2:30 p.m. Music with The Professors (Tide Pool Plaza Stage);

• 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Interactive Photo Booth;

• 2:30-4 p.m. Music with Jonny Tarr Trio (Splash Café by The French Gourmet).

Share favorite photos and memories from trips to the aquarium using the hashtag #25onTheHill. Staff will choose and the best to add to the website and broadcast as part of the event.

Aquarium admission: Adults $18.50; Ages 3-17, $14.

Contact: (858) 534-FISH.