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.”

Hillgarth said the challenge is “keeping it entertaining to the public. All this new technology will help us do that.”

Looking ahead, Hillgarth said the aquarium’s programs over the next 10 years would have “more emphasis on conservation and biodiversity.”

She added Birch will also have exhibits with a more local focus, like an upcoming exhibit on leopard sharks, a common sight in San Diego coastal waters at various times of the year.

Zmarzly said the biggest change going forward in aquarium programming will be “helping the public understand all of this new technology, what it’s showing us, then employing all kinds of new digital technologies to show people the world in real-time imagery.”

Birch Aquarium

Location: 2300 Expedition Way, La Jolla

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

Admission: $9-$14

Live Exhibits: More than 3,000 specimens represent some 350 species of fishes, invertebrates

Size: 64,157 square feet total: 32,657-square-foot interior; 4,500-square-foot tide pool, 27,000-square-foot outside patio.

Attendance: 405,000-plus annually, 40,000-plus students.

Staff: 55 employees, 500 volunteers

Annual budget: $5 million, non-profit, self-supporting

Programs: Outdoor Adventures, snorkeling, tide pooling, grunion runs, whale watching, pier walks; summer Green Flash concerts, Perspective on Ocean Science lectures, ocean author programs;

Special Events: Spring EGGstravaganza, Haunted Aquarium, Sea Days, Shark Week, Summer Learning Adventure Camps, birthday parties

Aquarium History Timeline

1905: Formed in 1903, Scripps moved to the “Little Green Lab,” at La Jolla Cove featuring the institution’s first public aquarium exhibit.

1915: First building devoted exclusively to the aquarium was built on Scripps campus.

1951: Three-story Scripps Aquarium-Museum opens in 1951 with ring of 18 tanks.

1986: Delaware-based Stephen and Mary Birch Foundation donates $6 million to fundraising effort to replace existing facilities.

1992: Birch Aquarium at Scripps opens its doors.

1998: Aquarium receives prestigious accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, ensuring rigorous standards in animal care, education and conservation in exhibits and programs.

2000: The 13,000-gallon Lynne and Howard Robbins Shark Reef opens.

2003: Scripps Institution of Oceanography celebrates its centennial

2007: Former Vice President Al Gore dedicates the aquarium’s “Feeling the Heat: The Climate Challenge” exhibit in connection with delivering his “Inconvenient Truth” lecture about global warming at UCSD.