Located on San Francisco’s Pier 39, the Aquarium of the Bay is an unexpected treasure—a three-story, 65,000-square-foot home to some 20,000 San Francisco Bay marine animals, including more than 200 species. Conservation, research and education are the top priorities of this nonprofit marine nature center.
Experiencing Aquarium of the Bay
Here, you walk through clear acrylic tunnels while fish swim all around you, as if you are under the bay. A sevengill shark, the size of a surfboard, weaves through kelp toward you and then slips overhead. Next comes Bubbette, a 300-pound Black Sea Bass followed by a bat ray. Further down the tunnel, thousands of anchovies swirl in a circle, and sea stars cling to the glass. In addition to tunnels, this aquatic home has lots of other habitats—for jellyfish, sea cucumbers, a giant Pacific octopus, angel sharks, sea anemones, Pacific spiny lumpsuckers, Bay pipefish (the bay’s version of sea horses), and many other underwater creatures. Children squeal when they discover a real live Nemo, the beloved clownfish from the movie Finding Nemo, and his friend Dora, a blue tang. Youngsters also love the touch pools, where they stroke real starfish, bat rays, skates and tiger sharks. One of several videos shows an octopus, its long tentacles poking, prodding, and wrapping around a jar, until it finally unscrews the top and squeezes inside to gobble up a crab.
Special Exhibits and Activities
The Aquarium of the Bay is more than a zoo. It’s dedicated to education, conservation and entertainment, offering many activities to support its mission. Naturalists, stationed in each of the Aquarium’s main exhibits, answer questions, point out animal characteristics, give informative talks, and supervise touch pools. A wide array of daily talks and programs include:
A behind the scenes tour: From the catwalk above the tanks, visitors learn how the aquarium cares for its 20,000 marine animals.
Feeding time: Visitors watch naturalists (at designated times) feed fish in the tunnels, the touch pool, and the tide pool.
PG&E Bay Lab: This 1,200-square-foot space focuses on climate change, how we affect it, and how it affects habitats of land animals in the San Francisco Bay Area. Here visitors find interactive displays, science experiments, and hands on encounters with western pond turtles, Pacific tree frogs, honeybees, California king snakes, blue-tongued skinks, pink-toed tarantulas, and an adorable chinchilla.
Temporary exhibits: To raise public awareness, the Aquarium creates temporary exhibits such as Finning Isn’t Funny, a Sherman the Shark cartoon display that introduces visitors to the global threat of shark finning. (Shark specialists estimate that 100 million sharks are killed for their fins every year.)
Sharktober: A month-long focus on the local shark population offers up a fundraising festival, a film festival (all about sharks), even a family sleepover under the sharks in the aquarium’s tunnels. Another sleepover takes place in August; others by arrangement.
Aquarium of the Bay History
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In 1996 the aquarium was called Underwater World and focused on fish from around the world. Today, the non-profit organization Aquarium of the Bay, focuses on marine life and ecosystems of San Francisco Bay and its nearby waters. The aquarium’s transformation came in stages—first changing its focus to the Bay in 2001. It received accreditation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in 2002 and became certified as a Green Business in 2005. New owners created a non-profit foundation in 2006, which focused on education, research and conservation. In 2007 Pacific Gas and Electric Company gave the foundation a $200,000 grant that gave birth to the aquarium’s large exhibit on climate-change. And in 2008, the foundation launched a research program in partnership with UC Davis to study the sevengill shark population in the San Francisco Bay.
In 2009, the aquarium became affiliated with The Bay Institute, which now owns and operates the aquarium. The Bay Institute’s mission is to protect, restore and inspire conservation of the San Francisco Bay and its watershed, from the Sierra to the Sea.
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