Birch Aquarium in La Jolla welcomes new interim executive director

By Pat Sherman

Native San Diegan Steven Schindler — who as a child recalled wonder-filled visits to the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) — has been selected as the institution’s interim executive director.

Schindler holds a business degree from San Diego State University with an emphasis on marketing. He began June 18, replacing former executive director, Nigella Hillgarth (who left Birch after nearly 12 years to accept a position as president and CEO of Boston’s New England Aquarium).

Schindler, who after just days on the job told


Jolla Light

he was in awe of Scripps’ work with weedy and leafy dragon fish and baby anemonefish, said he vows to continue where Hillgarth left off, working to ensure Birch “remains relevant” to both tourists and locals.

Schindler’s appointment is expected to last one year while the search for a permanent aquarium director is under way.

“Working here for me really is a dream come true,” he said. “I think it would be pretty cool if maybe there was an opportunity for it to last longer, but so far I keep telling people that I’m pinching myself to remind myself that it’s real.”

Schindler, who grew up in Allied Gardens and Del Cerro, joins Birch after more than two years as senior vice president and chief marketing officer of the National Aquarium.

As a member of National Aquarium’s executive leadership team, he helped transform the institution’s marketing role, improve programming and guest satisfaction and increase revenues. During his tenure, Schindler’s team launched two major new exhibits at National Aquarium, heightened the institution’s brand and revamped its communications programs.

His background includes organizational development, communications, membership, community relations and fundraising.

The National Aquarium, Baltimore has an annual attendance of 1.5 million people (Birch attracts between 400,000 and 450,000 visitors per year). The National Aquarium maintained a smaller site in Washington, D.C. that drew about 200,000 visitors annually, before closing last September after it lost its space in the Herbert C. Hoover Building (home to the U.S. Department of Commerce and White House Visitor Center). The building is undergoing a long-term modernization and renovation.

“My business unit (at National Aquarium) was responsible for Baltimore and for Washington, D.C., but Baltimore was really the driver, financially, and reputationally,” Schindler said, noting that there is talk of relocating the D.C. aquarium to the National Mall.

“That plan went on hold and continues to be on hold,” Schindler said. “What the National Aquarium … continues to do is work on a feasibility study for the future of the National Aquarium in Washington, D.C.”

Schindler said he is happy and humbled to take the reins from Hillgarth, who left in May. “My job is to ensure that within the next year we can really, deeply engage within the various stakeholder groups here to consider the future for the Birch Aquarium and at the same time to really celebrate all of the work that the people who have been here for 10 months, 10 years or 20 years have contributed to this institution.”

New Exhibit: ‘Mexican Seas’

A new exhibit at Birch Aquarium, featuring the photography and research of SIO assistant professor of marine ecology, Dr. Octavio Aburto, opened this week.

The exhibit, “Mexican Seas (Mares Mexicanos),” takes visitors on an intimate photographic journey to four jewels of Mexico’s coastal seas, revealing stunning images of the marine life thriving in these protected areas.