The Birch Aquarium, San Diego: A Window on What’s Under There

By staff writer Cathie Nichols. Photos Copyright © Cathie Nichols.

Spending a few hours at the Birch Aquarium in La Jolla, Southern California is as soothing as it is beautiful—unless you bring your three small daughters like I used to do, and then it’s just an elementary school-level lesson in counting.

There’s one, there’s two, there’s . . . where’s three? Where’s three? She was just here a minute ago!

And they're off!

And they’re off!

So, I’ll be honest, even though I have been to the Birch Aquarium countless times before this past August, I couldn’t tell you anything about it. Not a single detail other than there were probably some fish there. I spent all my visits making sure I left with every daughter I had arrived with, and making sure there were plenty of snacks for cranky strollerees (probably fish crackers, keeping with the theme—yes, I was that kind of mom).

Yellow Tang

Yellow Tang

In August of this year, I had the brilliant idea of visiting the aquarium with only one of my girls, her friend and my husband. The girls are now old enough (even my husband!) to take care of themselves so I hoped I would finally have the chance to walk around and see as much as possible.

Looks like it would hurt...

Looks like it would hurt . . .

And take it in is what I did. I took it all in. I stared into each water wonderland for precious minutes at a time, watching the fish do their fish activities. Some laid on the ground trying to look like they weren’t there while others swam around the perimeter of their spaces at lightning speed, outrunning my camera and making it impossible to capture their image. Still others stood at attention like soldiers at the bottom of the tank in the sand.

Straight as soldiers, these fish stay put!

Straight as soldiers, these fish stay put!

At one 70,000-gallon tank (you can watch this tank live), I sat on the bleachers and observed a school of fish moving together in perfect harmony, a giant sea bass who looked somewhat confused, a shark with the trademark back-and-forth fin action, and gently swaying kelp. Toddlers and preschoolers had their hands and bodies pressed against the glass trying to take it all in until a shark swam by, and then they slowly backed away from the glass in unison, fear keeping them quiet until the predator was forgotten and a brightly colored Garibaldi darted by.

A view of several tanks from Birch Aquarium.

A view of several tanks from Birch Aquarium

My favorite underwater view included an enormous octopus. I stared with intense and unwavering focus at the graceful giant hanging out in a corner of the glass, willing him (her?) to move. I used my powers of ESP sending signals to her to do something other than unfurl her lengthy arms and exercise a limb or two. She finally rewarded me with a quick swoop to the right side of the water cave and then quickly wooshed back to her original location. Maybe the water was too frigid? Maybe she thought the kelp was greener on the other side? I don’t know the answer to this burning question but what I do know is I was mesmerized, transfixed and most importantly, uninterrupted. I was able to enjoy the fish while other mothers dealt with counting their screaming and unruly toddlers.

Common Basket Star

Common Basket Star

I had approximately an hour and a half before a bored teen shuffled my way asking me in a somewhat whiny manner, “Can we go yet? We’re hungry.” Some things will never change. Perhaps the girls will have to be in college before I’m able to complete a full tour of Birch Aquarium. There is truly so much to see.

Kind of looks like spaghetti, doesn't it?

Kind of looks like spaghetti, doesn’t it?

The Birch Aquarium is a great, family-oriented facility that encourages exploration of all its 60 exhibits. Tired from walking around indoors? Go outside and enjoy the fresh air and breathtaking view of the Pacific Ocean and La Jolla on the patio. There are hands-on exhibits for the kids, and let’s be honest, it’s for adults, too. I know you’ve always wanted to touch a stingray, too, right? Prod a cucumber? Pick up a starfish? Finger-jab a sea urchin?

Jumping Jellyfish!

Jumping Jellyfish!

The Birch Aquarium is perfect for anyone visiting San Diego who needs an indoor activity due to (gasp!) rain or to get out of the sun for a bit. It’s low-key, fascinating and educational without being boring. Just think, you can look at all those fish up close and personal without ever having to get your hair wet!


Cathie Nichols, staff member at Milliver's Travels

Cathie Nichols

Originally from the East Coast, Cathie Nichols has spent the last 25 years in San Diego, and stays in the area because of its extraordinary beauty and a lovely lack of humidity. Accused by her three children of looking at too many rocks while visiting Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon and the deserts of Nevada, she continues to marvel at the ever-changing southwest landscape. With trips to Palm Springs, San Francisco, Turkey and Greece, Cathie plans to reawaken her desire to see the world, and leave no stone unturned. Cathie tweets as @bloggoneit.


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