Birch Aquarium at Scripps is one of San Diego’s best attractions and not your average aquarium. We’re members and have been visiting the aquarium for over 13 years now. The hands-on exhibits and over 60 fish and invertebrate habitats showcase the research and findings of the world-renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography, one of the largest centers for ocean and Earth science research.
I like to remind both locals and tourists that the San Diego aquarium’s programming extends far beyond visiting the aquarium itself. Seasonal adventures that meet in various locations around town encourage all ages to get outside, unplug, explore, view wildlife, and learn more about how we can better care for our local environment. I’ll explain what these are.
Plus, if you have kids interested in learning what it’s like to be a scientist, Birch Aquarium offers them opportunities to interact with staff members, STEM events, resources for educators, and outstanding summer camps. I’ll cover these, too, but I’ll start with most people’s introduction to this fantastic resource — a visit to the aquarium facility.
Who Is Birch Aquarium at Scripps For?
Everyone. There isn’t an age group that can’t enjoy Birch Aquarium and its programming.
I used to believe that La Jolla’s Birch Aquarium was best for toddlers and preschoolers who want to explore interactive exhibits and see fish. This is the age group that you’ll see the most during your visit.
However, you’ll also see plenty of adults practicing photography outside on Tide Pool Plaza or in the Hall of Fishes (without a flash, of course). There are tourists and even older kids revisiting favorite exhibits. It’s a treat to watch the kids pick up something new and exciting for them every single time they visit the aquarium.
I’ve learned over time that families visit San Diego specifically because their kids are interested in oceanography. I send them here and to the aquarium’s calendar of events for opportunities to learn in the field. They do an excellent job of making the work of the renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography accessible to the public.
What to Know Before You Go to Birch Aquarium at Scripps
A powerful conservation message is woven throughout Birch Aquarium at Scripps, accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. It isn’t a huge aquarium, but visiting is the first step to understanding exactly what they do and how to use this exploration center as a resource.
Advanced Reservations Are Required for all guests
Plan ahead. Everyone needs to make a reservation before visiting. This allows Birch Aquarium to monitor capacity, which is fantastic for getting up-close to your favorite exhibits.
Health and Safety Measures
You can expect new health and safety measures in place. Ages 2 and above will need to wear face coverings inside and outside. All guests will be asked to do a symptom check before entering and should adhere to the one-way pathways to ensure proper distancing.
Convenient La Jolla Location
Birch Aquarium’s location in the La Jolla Shores neighborhood is just a few minutes away from the I-5 freeway (San Diego’s major transportation artery), which means convenient access from the rest of San Diego.
This means that it’s easy to pair a Birch Aquarium visit with stops at other La Jolla attractions, and I’ll provide you with fun suggestions below.
The facilities are also straightforward to navigate, especially for young families with strollers. The entire aquarium is accessible, and it doesn’t take long to get from one side to the other.
It’s easy for kids to dart back and forth between favorite exhibits. This, combined with spectacular Pacific Ocean views, is why I’ve never found visiting to be stressful.
If you do bring older kids, make sure they’re mindful of younger kids as some of the hands-on exhibits are in tight spaces.
How Long to Plan Your Visit
An average visit typically lasts between 2-3 hours. Shows and feedings occur at various times throughout the week, so always check the daily schedule to plan around events of interest.
The Best Time to Visit
Right now, the best time to visit is any time that you can secure a reservation because capacity is restricted. This means the aquarium will never be too crowded.
During normal times, it’s a favorite place for school field trips during weekday mornings, but I’ve noticed that it tends to be a little less busy on weekday afternoons.
Tips for Taking Photos
Bring a camera but remember to turn off the flash. For best results and less reflection, position your camera as vertical as possible and close to the glass. No drones are allowed.
Drinks and snacks are entirely fine to bring in but not necessary as they can be purchased at the Splash! Cafe. You’ll find plenty of places, including the Splash! Cafe patio, to sit, relax, and grab a bite to eat.
Changing tables are also available inside the restrooms. You’ll also find handwashing stations near the touch exhibits. And there’s an ATM near Splash! Cafe.
10 Fun Things to Do at Birch Aquarium: Exhibits, Dining & Shopping
- Hall of Fishes
- Tide Pool Plaza
- Expedition at Sea
- Shark Shores
- Seadragons and Seahorses
- Whale Fall
- Plan to Eat
- Shop for Souvenirs
- Snap a Photo in Front of the Whales
You will get more out of your visit by taking a few minutes to understand what you’re looking at and why it’s on display. Make sure that you understand how to use the QR code reader on your smartphone so that you can scan the ones scattered around the aquarium to learn more about the exhibits.
I’ve listed Birch Aquarium exhibits in the order that the kids I’m with typically choose to see them.
Enter Birch Aquarium at Scripps via the lobby where the two seahorses are on this map. Here, the tank with Pacific Sardines swimming rapidly in circles is likely to lure you to the right, into Hall of Fishes.
(It’s also not uncommon for kids to want to take a second spin around Hall of Fishes before exiting for the day so you may want to plan extra time for this.)
1. Hall of Fishes
Here, guests journey through the California Current, which brings water from the Pacific Northwest down to California and the warm Mexico waters, and finishes in the Indo-Pacific coral reefs. There are several not-to-be-missed highlights in the Hall of Fishes.
Giant Pacific Octopus
One aquarium highlight is the Giant Pacific Octopus in the beginning of the Hall of Fishes on the left side, across from the sunflower stars.
They can grow up to 15 feet in diameter and are masters of disguise who live in the oceans off of Korea, Japan and the Pacific Northwest.
But what’s extra neat about this Scripps Aquarium resident is that she knows how to do puzzles and likes people, recognizing her caretakers by smell and sight.
Giant Kelp Forest
Did you know that in the right conditions, kelp can grow up to 3 feet per day? You’ve seen it onshore but take a look inside the two-story Giant Kelp Forest to see how kelp grows underwater and who lives among it.
Residents include the orange Garibaldi (California’s state fish), leopard sharks, eels, the giant black sea bass, and more.
Check the Kelp Tank Dive Show’s daily schedule, where divers in the tank answer audience questions and talk about how many of the products we use daily use kelp as an ingredient.
You’ll be able to watch divers feed the fish, too. Arrive a few minutes before the show starts for optimal seating. You can also view tank happenings through the online Kelp Cam, which is also broadcast on a big screen in the aquarium’s Entry Courtyard.
Don’t miss the Moray eels next door.
Rescued Loggerhead Sea Turtle
Cute does not begin to describe the loggerhead sea turtle, which is now in residence permanently at Birch Aquarium. She was rescued from a New Jersey power plant in 2013. Rear flipper paralysis and scoliosis (likely due to trauma before her rescue) deem her unreleasable.
The combination of CT scans and 3-D technology-enabled staff to create a brace to place on her cracked shell so that she can grow normally and serve as one of Birch Aquarium’s conservation ambassadors.
They hope she inspires others to think about what they do on land and in the water as human actions are the biggest threat to sea turtles. We’re talking about debris like plastic bags, fishing nets, pollution, and more.
On select dates and times, guests can watch the loggerhead sea turtle partake in training and a meal.
100 Island Challenge
It’s impossible to miss the brightly-colored 100 Island Challenge just past the loggerhead sea turtle. This experimental reef allows scientists to test equipment and research techniques before traveling to remote locations.
Their goal is to collect data from coral reefs surrounding 100 tropical islands worldwide to understand better how these reefs respond to our planet’s changes.
The Nursery – ANIMAL BABIES!
Love babies? Inside the Hall of Fishes you’ll be able to take a close look at clumps of mussels, swell shark egg cases and juvenile sharks, sand crabs, juvenile zebra perch and garibaldi, gorgonians, limpets, jellies, decorator crabs, seagrasses, and nudibranchs.
2. Preuss Tide Pool Plaza
Seasonal low tides during winter months reveal tide pools along San Diego’s coast. The living tide pools in Tide Pool Plaza are an opportunity for all ages to view the sea life that lives in our local tide pools.
Volunteers at these outdoor touch pools facilitate gentle touching and answer questions. These animals and plants are the heartiest of sea life as they must learn to survive underwater life, rough ocean tides, sunshine, and predators on land. After enjoying the touch pools, don’t worry. You can wash your hands at a nearby outdoor sink.
Get your camera ready as Tide Pool Plaza is also home to one of the most stunning ocean views in San Diego, thanks to its location on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
3. Expedition at Sea
The Scripps Institution of Oceanography has one of the largest research fleets globally, including the new R/V Sally Ride named for famed astronaut and UC San Diego professor Sally Ride.
This exhibit showcases more about the ship’s cutting-edge research and what it’s like to be out at sea. You’ll even have a chance to suit up like an explorer.
Plan plenty of time for the kinetic sand station that allows kids to shape their own seafloor. The color changes with the sand’s depth, and it’s unbelievably cool.
This comic book-inspired exhibit showcases the superpowers of ocean species. In other words, how they can adapt to survive.
You’ll also learn how these creatures from all depths have inspired everything from cinema and pop culture to medicine and engineering.
Items 5-7 below are found on the large outdoor space called Robert Smargon Exhibit Court (formerly known as Smargon Courtyard), where the Pacific Ocean views are spectacular, and there is a lot to do. Most of the courtyard can even be tented in preparation for winter (which, let’s face it, doesn’t get too cold here in San Diego).
(During normal times, Smargon Courtyard is also where Toddler Time is hosted. This popular series of fun events is geared towards guests ages 2 to 5 and takes place every other Wednesday morning, beginning at 10 a.m. Each Toddler Time offers a different theme presented by a special guest with live music, dancing, art activities, yoga, and more. And, it’s included with regular Birch Aquarium at Scripps admission.)
5. Shark Shores
Also on the Smargon Courtyard patio is a tribute to elasmobranchs, including La Jolla’s famous leopard sharks that arrive in summer to incubate in our warm water in addition to other sharks and rays.
Check the daily schedule for feedings here but keep in mind that Birch Aquarium at Scripps leads snorkeling with leopard sharks tours at La Jolla Shores beach in summer. Yes, leopard sharks are bottom feeders and safe to snorkel with.
6. Seadragons and Seahorses
After fun on the Smargon Courtyard, the kids head back into the aquarium through the side doors to see the seahorses. If I had to pick a favorite exhibit, this is it. Go to see a dozen seahorse species and their relatives, the seadragon.
Birch Aquarium at Scripps displays two of the three known species of seadragons, Weedy and Leafy. And, leave it to Birch Aquarium to discover a new type of Seadragon, the Ruby Seadragon though there aren’t any of these in captivity.
Seadragons are delicate, colorful, and beautiful, so you should definitely stop into this permanent exhibit, which sheds light on seadragon conservation.
TIP: GO BEHIND THE SCENESYou can now book a behind-the-scenes
7. Learn About Whale FALL
Whales are big but what happens after they fall to the ocean floor? Outside on the Nigella Hillgarth Education Plaza, you can take a look at whale bones and invertibrate specimens to learn the answer while admiring the aquarium’s Wyland mural.
TIP: WHEN TO WHALE WATCHThe aquarium views are so good that you might see one when they travel in larger numbers closer to shore from mid-January to February.
8. Plan to Eat
Break from the adventure with a meal or snack at the Splash! Cafe by The French Gourmet just outside of the aquarium entrance.
The food is excellent with sandwiches, salads, and side dishes made daily by The French Gourmet, a trendy San Diego restaurant and bakery. In line with the aquarium’s conservation mission, Splash! Cafe serves boxed water and fair trade coffee from Cafe Moto in addition to organic and gluten-free dishes, grab-and-go snacks, and more.
The kids I take love the various flatbreads and the fresh guacamole side. Carne asada fries and Ballast Point Sculpin, one of San Diego’s famous local beers, on tap are just a few of the local favorites to enjoy.
9. Take a Souvenir Home
The gift shop is adorable. Sure, it’s full of stuffed animals and trinkets for kids, but also sea-themed home decor, books, jewelry, and much more. If you’re on the hunt for a unique birthday present for a kids’ party, it’s way better than the toy store, and there is a robust selection of items to choose from.
10. Snap a Photo In Front of the Whales
Before or after your Birch Aquarium at Scripps visit, snap a photo in front of “The Legacy.” It’s a compilation of three life-sized gray whale bronze statues. Two are breaching in one fountain pool while the third is tail-up in a separate nearby pool.
“The Legacy” marks the entrance to the aquarium. So, if you’re following GPS and you see these statues, you know you’re in the right place.
Also near the ticket booth, you’ll see a giant inflatable octopus that you may take selfies with. Remember to share photos on social media using #BirchAquarium.
Coming Soon: Little Blue Penguins!
Get ready for the newest and cutest exhibit to come in summer 2022. Little Blue Penguins are the smallest species of penguin (less than 12 inches tall) and are native to the coastal dunes and rocky shores of Southern Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand.
Birch Aquarium will be the only aquarium in the Western U.S. to house these pretty blue birds with big personalities. In the new exhibit, guests will learn about how these birds live in the wild and the challenges they face.
The 2,900-square-foot exhibit will include rocky and sandy shore habitat and an 18,000-gallon pool where guests will observe the penguins socializing, interacting, and nest building. The exhibit also includes a small amphitheater for guests to observe birds swimming, and a discovery cave for children to closely observe Little Blue Penguins on land and inside nesting burrows.
Join Popular Programming Outside of the Aquarium
I can’t emphasize enough to locals and visitors how cool this programming is, whether you are interested in oceanography or not. Please take advantage of it — we are so lucky that the Scripps Institution of Oceanography offers Birch Aquarium as a public outreach center.
Winter Tidepooling Tours
One of the best things to do in town during the winter months is to keep an eye on the tide calendar for minus tides that present opportunities for tide pooling in San Diego.
Inside these tide pools await critters that delight all ages. It takes a keen eye to spot them, which Birch Aquarium naturalists do have. We took a group of tweens on this winter adventure, and it was so much fun. It’s possible to spy sea cucumbers, sea stars, multiple types of crabs, fish, sea anemones, and even the occasional starfish.
Birch Aquarium at Scripps leads tide pooling tours at Dike Rock on La Jolla Shores Beach near Scripps Pier or sometimes at False Point, a small rocky beach in the Bird Rock neighborhood.
See also: Tips for Visiting La Jolla Tide Pools
Guided Grunion Runs
Are you looking for a little late-night adventure? On certain nights during spring and summer, little slippery silver fish called grunion ride waves to the sand during full moons and new moons to spawn. The event is quite a sight to behold. Before the adventure, you’ll have a chance to see a grunion hatch live.
Grunion running is really fun and something that residents do. I recommend that you bring a camping headlamp.
Whale Watching Tours
Whales can be seen migrating now during most of the year in San Diego. From about December through April, over 20,000 gray whales travel round-trip from the Bering Sea down to the warmer waters of Baja California to give birth.
From May through September, blue whales (fin and humpback whales tend to join in, too) arrive in Southern California to feed on large quantities of krill. Birch Aquarium at Scripps has partnered with locally-owned and operated Flagship Cruises to take guests on whale watching adventures that depart from downtown San Diego. This is one of my favorite whale watching tours in San Diego to recommend to readers and friends.
Fun Summer Camps in San Diego
Don’t forget Birch Aquarium when searching for summer camps in San Diego. Ages 4-15 can enjoy all things ocean science with a myriad of themed half-day or full-day accredited camp choices based on age.
They’re ideal for kids with a budding interest in marine biology or those who love sea life, crafts, and having a good time. Some camps are held at the aquarium while others head to the beach where kids encounter animals while snorkeling and learn about currents and waves through body-boarding.
Older kids can visit Scripps scientists in their labs to learn what it’s like to be an oceanographer and even perform experiments.
Resources for Educators and Kids
Kids from kindergarten to 12th grade are invited to submit their ocean and earth sciences questions for Scripps scientists to answer. How cool is that?
High schoolers interested in pursuing a career in marine science are invited to apply for internships at the aquarium. At the same time, college students can spend summers as interns at Birch Aquarium’s camps.
Think of Birch Aquarium when it comes time to plan a school field trip. Beach Teaches meet at La Jolla Shores Beach, where naturalists teach kids about beach habitats, data collection, tide pool life, and more. Similar field trip programming happens at the aquarium, where some grade levels can examine a fish dissection, study fossils, and learn different age-appropriate science topics.
The Aquarium Express van can even come to your school for hands-on learning in the classroom. There are many other ways for students to benefit from Birch Aquarium school programs, including a robust selection of online activities.
Birch Aquarium Tickets and Membership
I specialize in helping people plan San Diego family vacations and if you make a purchase using my links, I may be compensated.
Tickets can be purchased online, and at that time, you’ll pick a date to visit. Ticket sales feed animals, expand ocean education opportunities, and support research and conservation initiatives in our community and elsewhere.
If you had tickets or a reservation for during the time the San Diego aquarium is closed, your reservation will automatically be canceled. You may reschedule your visit for a future date or donate your ticket to the aquarium during this time of need. Advanced reservations to visit Birch Aquarium are required.
Child (3-17): $19.95
Ages 2 and under: Free
Student with ID: $22.95
Senior (60+): $22.95
UC San Diego Staff: $22.95
Military Discount: All active, reserve, retired/veteran with valid Military ID receive $3 off each ticket.
Go San Diego
Birch Aquarium at Scripps is also part of the popular Go San Diego sightseeing pass. There are two pass types to consider.
The All-Inclusive pass can save up to 55% and provides entry to 55 San Diego attractions over the course of 1, 2, 3, 5, or 7 days. You can choose the Explorer pass purchased based on the number of attractions you’d like to visit without deciding which attractions to visit in advance. Birch Aquarium at Scripps tickets can be included on both Go San Diego pass types.
Go San Diego pass holders will need to call Visitor Services to make a reservation at 858-534-FISH.
PLEASE NOTE: Go San Diego passes are not qualifying tickets for the annual Kids Free San Diego promotion in October.
EXCLUSIVE LA JOLLA MOM DISCOUNT
Use promo code LJM10SDO to apply an extra 10% off All-Inclusive Go San Diego sightseeing passes.
This discount stacks on top of sale rates! Expires 12/31/22.
Membership Has Major Benefits
Members of Birch Aquarium at Scripps enjoy unlimited year-round admission, by far the best deal for residents and frequent visitors to San Diego.
To give you an idea, a family membership is $179 and includes four free guest admission passes, a 10% discount at Splash! Cafe and the gift shop, and access to exclusive opportunities throughout the year.
And, you can feel good knowing that membership dollars go toward supporting Birch Aquarium’s mission of education and conservation.
Birch Aquarium Hours and Directions [Map]
Birch Aquarium at Scripps is open daily from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. The last opportunity to buy tickets for the day at the aquarium is at 4:30 p.m.
They close early at 4 p.m. on December 24. And are fully closed on the days of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
Address: 2300 Expedition Way, La Jolla, California, 92037
Directions are fairly easy from the freeway.
From I-5 South (Carlsbad, Del Mar):
- Exit La Jolla Village Drive and turn RIGHT to head west.
- Right after the road changes name to N Torrey Pines Road (near UCSD), turn left on Expedition Way.
- When you reach Downwind Way, turn left into the Birch Aquarium parking lot, or head straight to the rotunda to drop off visitors.
From I-5 North (Downtown, Coronado):
- Exit La Jolla Village Drive and turn LEFT to head west.
- Right after the road changes name to N Torrey Pines Road (near UCSD), turn left on Expedition Way.
- When you reach Downwind Way, turn left into the Birch Aquarium parking lot, or head straight to the rotunda to drop off visitors.
Estimated drive times without traffic:
- Coronado to Birch Aquarium: 27 minutes
- Downtown to Birch Aquarium: 19 minutes
- LEGOLAND to Birch Aquarium: 31 minutes
- Del Mar to Birch Aquarium: 17 minutes
- Downtown La Jolla to Birch Aquarium: 12 minutes
- La Jolla Shores Beach to Birch Aquarium: 10 minutes
Birch Aquarium parking: Visitors receive three hours of free parking in the adjacent parking lot. This lot tends to fill up, so I would advise you to visit first thing in the morning or later in the afternoon as people exhaust their three-hour limit. If you want to stay longer than three hours, you can extend your time in the parking lot with a permit purchased through the Visitor Services office.
Otherwise, visitors tend to use street parking. As this is a UC San Diego campus, be sure not to park where the student or staff permits are required (signage is fairly clear).
Guests of the La Jolla Shores Hotel can take advantage of the complimentary hotel shuttle for transportation to and from Birch Aquarium.
What to Do Nearby in La Jolla
It’s easy to combine a visit to Birch Aquarium at Scripps with other nearby things to do in La Jolla.
La Jolla Shores Beach
La Jolla Shores is regarded as one of the best beaches in the nation for a good reason. In addition to a wide stretch of sand perfect for sunbathing, walks and sunsets, loads of marine life live in the San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park offshore.
The humanmade park is home to four habitats (rocky reef, kelp bed, sand flats, and submarine canyon) and a popular place for snorkeling and scuba diving. It’s also fun to join a kayaking tour past the seven sea caves, learn how to stand-up paddleboard, or simply build a few sandcastles here after playing at the seaside playground, Kellogg Park.
La Jolla Cove
For kids who never tire of sea life, head to the Village to see La Jolla’s famous seals and sea lions. They’re adorable and usually visible on the sand at the Children’s Pool or on the rocks near La Jolla Cove. North of La Jolla Cove, take a walk inside the only sea cave accessible by land, Sunny Jim, through the aptly-named Cave Store.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
This family-friendly state park is home to easy trails for walking, hiking, and Pacific Ocean views. Check the website for trail conditions before you go.
Torrey Pines Gliderport
Bring the camera as you’ll want to capture the colorful gliders launch off the cliffs and into the air at this flight school, which also offers tandem rides for the daring. Watch from the patio or picnic tables of the Cliffhanger Cafe.
The Stuart Collection
The UC San Diego campus is home to a collection of unique, large pieces of public art called The Stuart Collection. The collection’s website offers a map to follow. (It can be quite a bit of walking for young kids to see the entire collection, but you can make a mini scavenger hunt out of it.)
I like to remind locals and tourists that the aquarium is multifaceted. While exploring the aquarium facilities fabulous way to spend a half-day, remember to take advantage of the offsite programming, special events, summer camps, and school programs. We are so lucky to have this valuable resource in our backyard.
See also: Best Things to Do in San Diego with Kids
FAQs About Birch Aquarium at Scripps
How long does it take to go through Birch Aquarium?
Plan to spend about 2-3 hours at Birch Aquarium. Part of this time will be spent exploring the exhibits while you’ll also want to enjoy the panoramic ocean views that are among the best in San Diego. You’ll also perhaps eat lunch or a snack from the Splash Cafe or from home in the picnic areas.
How much is the Birch Aquarium?
Birch Aquarium tickets are $24.95 per adult and $19.95 per child ages 2-17. Children under the age of 2 are free.
Is Birch Aquarium indoors?
The aquariums and some exhibits at Birch Aquarium are located indoors. However, there is quite a bit to do outside. The two outdoor exhibit areas on this list to pay attention to are Tide Pool Plaza and Smargon Courtyard.