Tanks for the memories


September marks 20 years that Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institute of Oceanography has drawn visitors to tour its marine tanks and award-winning museum at Expedition Way. Among the many celebrations it plans to commemorate two decades of marine education is free admission for UC San Diego students, faculty and staff, Sept. 16-22.

It’s also the final month (in a year-long celebration) that the aquarium has offered half-off admission on the 20th to residents living in ZIP codes 91901-92199 (with valid ID), limit two children per paid adult.

“We strive to be an asset to the community,” said Nigella Hillgarth, executive director at the aquarium for more than a decade. Hillgarth said attendance this year of 436,000 visitors has been the highest number recorded since the grand opening year, 1992.

The public aquarium and interactive museum showcase discoveries by researchers at the world-renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.

She said one of the institution’s most exciting plans for the years ahead is a rare pilot program to try and breed seadragons, funded by a grant from the Lowe Family Foundation.

“We are setting up a special area for breeding them,” she explained. “The seadragons are from Australia and very little is understood about them.”

Another exhibit in the works is called “Deep Ocean,” which was spearheaded by public interest, Hillgarth said. It will include deep-ocean research facts from scientists at the university, and is expected to take at least three years to complete.

Birch Aquarium has received numerous awards for its efforts to conserve the threatened seahorse and Hillgarth said the aquarium has become famous for its seahorse research. The current exhibit, “There’s Something About Seahorses,” presents seahorse families and includes a “baby” nursery.

When asked what impact she hopes the aquarium has on the children who visit, Hillgarth answered, “I hope they are totally hooked on the wonders of the ocean. I become inspired when kids actually go into the ocean and explore. If I can get a kid excited to go snorkeling in La Jolla caves, I’ve done my job.”

If you go

What: Birch Aquarium at Scripps

Where: 2300 Expedition Way, La Jolla

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily

Admission: $9.50-$14

Phone: (858) 534-3474


September Events

Sea Days, Snapshots of Scripps Science: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 15, free with admission.

California Coastal Cleanup Day: Bring your own bucket for a trash-decorating contest, 9 a.m. to noon, Saturday, Sept. 15 at La Jolla Shores. Reservations are recommended at

UC San Diego Free Week: Sept. 16-22

Green Flash Concert by Steve Poltz: 5:30-9 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 19. (Ages 21 & above) Tickets $24-$32. (858) 534-4109.

Half-off Admission: Thursday, Sept. 20

Teacher Appreciation Night: 5-7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 25. Reservations (858) 534-7336.

Full Moon Pier Walk: 6-8:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 29 and Sunday, Sept. 30.

Tickets $22-$25. (858) 534-7336.

Brief Aquarium History

1915: The first building devoted solely to an aquarium was built on the Scripps Institute of Oceanography campus in La Jolla.

1951: The Scripps Aquarium-Museum opened. It was a three-story facility with a ring of 18 tanks.

1985: The Stephen and Mary Birch Foundation started a fund-raising effort for a new aquarium by donating $6 million. In September 1992, the current $14 million Birch Aquarium at Scripps opened its doors in a new building on Expedition Way.