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San Diego Zoo Animals and Attractions: The Must-See List

From rarely seen okapi to polar bears that plunge, these are the highlights.

As a longtime member, I have a list of favorite San Diego Zoo animals, attractions, and experiences to look out for. It’s impossible to see and do everything in a single day or even two days, so knowing what the highlights are will help you get the most out of your visit.

Tickets and Tips

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The San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park are both OPEN and operating at reduced capacities. Some high-touch exhibits like children’s play areas are closed, as are the ride-like attractions. Masks are required for ages 2 and older, but you can read more about what to expect.

You also can refer to my favorite San Diego Zoo tips for maximizing your day in detail, though I have woven some key points into mentions of the animals and attractions below.

Can’t Miss San Diego Zoo Animals

The full San Diego Zoo animals list is online. You’ll want to click on the animal you’d like to see to make sure it’s still in residence or on view.

For example, the two-toed sloths are now only seen during occasional animal ambassador presentations. And, while you can watch old panda cam footage and learn tons about them on the San Diego Zoo website, our giant pandas have returned to China.

Polar Bears

A polar bear, one of the most popular San Diego Zoo animals, eats a carrot in the shade.
He’s actually eating a carrot.

We have polar bears living outside in San Diego. Think about that for a minute. The highly-adaptable bears are also very playful, which is why the San Diego Zoo Polar Bear Plunge exhibit’s design is so great.

TIP

I go here first thing in the morning because they are the most active and you might be able to catch them eating breakfast.

You can see them hang out on land in our Southern California sunshine, but you’ve hit the jackpot if they start to swim. Underwater polar bear activity — and they do “plunge” — is easily viewed through glass. The curious bears are known to swim up right up to the windows much to the delight of the lucky viewers who happened to time their visit right. It’s such a spectacle that I’ve never been able to take a decent photo or video of it.

Docents monitor the exhibit while answering questions. Kids can crawl through a “den” and learn about what these endangered animals eat. You can get your polar bear fix at any time though through the polar bear cam.

Our polar bears participate in conservation studies. One included the impact of noise pollution on hearing which can help with the implementation of conservation laws. Another, which is why you may notice they have little bald spots if you watch the cam, is to learn more about whether diet and pollutants impact how quickly their hair grows. (Location: Northern Frontier)

POLAR BEAR TRIVIA

They can sniff a seal on the ice from up to 20 miles away. They do not hibernate and the fur on their feet keeps them from slipping on the ice!

Okapis

Two okapis eat leaves.
They have tongues like giraffes.

Okapis look like a cross between a zebra and a giraffe, but they are actually related to giraffes. Go out of your way to see these San Diego Zoo animals because not many other zoos have them. Sightings of okapis in the wild are also incredibly rare because they’re both shy and endangered.

All of this means that not many people have seen okapis before. You can enjoy them at both San Diego Zoo Global parks who have together been able to breed four generations of okapis and send them to other zoos in Japan, the United States, and South Africa.

Okapis live in Africa’s Ituri Forest where one-fifth of their dense rain forest habitat is now protected as a wildlife reserve, which San Diego Zoo Global helps support alongside other zoos and organizations. San Diego Zoo researchers also discovered that okapis have a low-pitch secret language that predators can’t hear. (Location: Lost Forest)

DON’T COVER YOUR TRACKS

Okapis mark their territory with a tar-like goo secreted by scent glands on their feet. Also, they’re well suited to a rain forest life as water slides right off of their oily dense fur while keeping their skin dry.

Koalas

A koala sleeps in a tree.
Koalas do lots and lots of sleeping.

San Diego Zoo koalas are the largest colony to live outside of Australia. Females and joeys are separated from males in the exhibit and an elevated walkway weaves between the two spaces so that guests can take a closer look. Koalas spend most of their days in the eucalyptus trees either eating, sleeping, or climbing really slowly around.

We’re lucky to have them. Many zoos can’t keep koalas because they’re located in climates where eucalyptus trees do not grow well. We have loads of this koala food all over San Diego and the zoo maintains its own eucalyptus tree farm.

Koalas have lived at the San Diego Zoo since 1925, and each one is given Australian Aboriginal names that reflect their personality traits. Like other animals in the park, these cuties are studied to learn more about mate selection and other habits that can help them survive in the wild.

The Zoo’s research and on-the-ground researcher in Australia helped establish St. Bees Island as an Australian National Park to protect the colony of koalas that live there. And this is one of many achievements in the koala conservation department.

Koalas sleep 20 hours a day, which is why avid viewers of the koala cam likely see a lot of grey furry backside. It’s still worth checking! Don’t forget to see the nearby wallabies and tree kangaroos. (Location: Lost Forest)

BEAR THIS IN MIND

Koalas are not bears — they’re marsupials.

Pygmy Hippos

A pygmy hippo looks directly into the camera while in the water.
Pygmy hippos have rounder heads than river hippos.

In case you haven’t heard the news, we have a new adorable baby pygmy hippo named Akobi, who is the first to be born in over 30 years at the Zoo.

As the name implies, pygmy hippos are much smaller than river hippos with rounder heads and eyes located more on the sides of their faces rather than on top of their heads. Pygmy hippos are endangered so less commonly found in the wild with only about 2,500 left in Africa.

Also neat is that they share an exhibit with Wolf’s guenons monkeys and spot-nosed monkeys. The guenons are known to hop on hippo backs for rides. Like the polar bears, you can view their underwater habitat through the glass so have your camera ready in case they float by.

Also, a baby river hippo was born at the zoo in February. Her name is Amahle, which means beautiful one in Zulu. You can see her also on Hippo Trail. (Location: Hippo Trail in the Lost Forest)

NATURAL SUNSCREEN?

Pygmy hippo skin secrets a pink liquid that protect is from the sun.

Elephants

Elephant eats leaves in its enclosure at the San Diego Zoo.
Elephants are very popular San Diego Zoo animals.

While most zoos seem to have elephants, our elephant enclosure is pretty spectacular and so is the care they receive. If you happened to watch The Zoo: San Diego on Animal Planet, you may have seen one of them undergo an acupuncture session.

Signs around the viewing areas feature each of the African and Asian elephant names and features so you can try to identify them. You’ll also pass by their state-of-the-art Elephant Care Center.

And, the elephants are more or less always out eating, hanging out in the shade, or playing with their toys so you can visit them nearly any time of the day (though there isn’t much shade over here).

San Diego Zoo Global works with Elephants Without Borders to track movements of elephants in southern Africa and on other research to prevent their extinction and poaching. (Location: Elephant Odyssey)

African Penguins

A close-up of an African penguin on its cobblestone beach.
They have spots on their chest which is how you can tell them apart.

The African Penguins received some fancy digs with the opening of Africa Rocks with a cobblestone beach that resembles Boulders Beach in South Africa and a gigantic swimming pool.

Their wings are for swimming, not flying, and you can watch their acrobatics in the underwater viewing area. The likes of squid and sardines have no chance against these fast swimmers who can hold their breath for up to two minutes and dive up to 400 feet.

African Penguin numbers are dwindling in the wild so fingers crossed this flock will begin to breed successfully. (Location: Africa Rocks)

Galapagos Tortoises

To Galapagos tortoises look at each other in their habitat.
Big and slow.

A few of the Galapagos tortoises have been at the Zoo since 1928 and are probably over 100 years old. Their shells are numbered for identification reasons — males have white numbers and females have red numbers.

These gentle and slow giants can reach up to 500 lbs. and 6 feet in length. It’s their bodies that are heavy, though, as their shells have air pockets in them. You’ll see them sunning themselves

While they eat mostly kale and veg at the Zoo, they gravitate toward reds, yellows, pinks, and oranges which are the color of the flowers they munch on in the wild. So, maybe you wear these colors to see if you can catch their attention.

During normal times, guests have been able to interact with the Galapagos tortoises in a special area when staff members are present by feeding them veggies. (Location: Discovery Outpost)

MORE COWBELL

In order to get the Galapagos tortoises to come in for the night, the keepers trained them to respond to the sound of a cowbell. So, when they hear the cowbell, they slooooowly walk inside.

Hamadryas Baboons

A baboon chills on the grass in the Africa Rocks exhibit that is shared with San Diego Zoo animals.
A female hamadryas baboon in Africa Rocks seeking some peace and quiet.

It’s never a dull moment in the baboon enclosure. The males in the troops boast unmistakable manes and are usually followed around by multiple females. The dominant male at San Diego Zoo is named Elvis. He totally looks like an Elvis.

The hamadryas baboons are an active group that likes to play, groom, and tumble around their gorgeous Ethiopian Highlands habitat. They share it with Gelada monkeys (who have a red hourglass-shaped marking on their chest) and Nubian ibex goats.

They’re not endangered, thankfully. (Location: Africa Rocks)

Meerkats

A keeper tells guests about meerkats during a daily Keeper Talk.
You can ask questions during Keeper Talks.

You’ll find the meerkats in Africa Rocks around the corner from the hamadryas baboons. The viewing area is pretty close to where they burrow so you’ll usually see plenty of activity between the several family groups who live here. They stand on their hind legs, cuddle, groom themselves, sunbathe, dig and scurry about much to the delight of viewers.

You can see meerkats in residence here and at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Over 250 have been born across both parks over the years. At San Diego Zoo, there is usually meerkat keeper talk at some point during the day where a keeper comes out to feed them, talk about their habits, and answer questions. I’m a fan of Keeper Talks so look for them on the day of your visit. (Location: Africa Rocks)

Axolotl Salamanders (Coming Soon)

An axolotl swims in an aquarium.
Can you even handle it?

I can’t wait for these little guys (and gals) to go on view in the brand new Sanford Children’s Zoo, which is scheduled to open in 2021. Kids will love their mix of weird and cute with feathery gills, webbed feet, and grinning cartoon character-like faces.

A fantastic reason why they’re studied is that these salamanders can fully regenerate limbs and major organs like their hearts and brains. Besides, they’re chameleons that alternate between a pink and brown color for camouflage.

What I didn’t know until recently is that they’re only found in Lake Xochimilco and Lake Chalco in Mexico City. A Xochimilco trajinera (boat) ride is one of the top things to do in Mexico City and while people rarely spot them, it would be fun to try. And, because of pollution, the axolotl is a critically endangered species so the message to kids is clearly to take care of the environment. (Location: Sanford Children’s Zoo)

Favorite San Diego Zoo Attractions (Temporarily Unavailable)

Most of the San Diego Zoo attractions outside of the animals are temporarily closed and I look forward to their reopening. Not only do they help you get around the 100-acre park but they also add an extra layer of fun to your day.

Skyfari Aerial Tram

A Skyfari tram heads north on the cable lines against a blue sky.
Views for miles on the Skyfari tram.

The Skyfari Aerial Tram is a cable car that takes visitors between Front Street (by the new Children’s Zoo) up to Northern Frontier (near Polar Bear Plunge) and back.

It’s both a fun ride but also a practical way to minimize walking. In addition, you’ll enjoy some of the best views of San Diego over Balboa Park to planes landing at the airport. The use of Skyfari Aerial Tram is included with admission. (Location: Front Street and Northern Frontier)

Guided Bus Tour

Some new visitors prefer to take the 35-minute Guided Bus Tour first thing in the morning to get a better feel for where San Diego Zoo animals are located. The double-decker bus covers a lot the zoo, passing by the bears, giraffes, tapirs, flamingos, and more that are easy to see.

Alternatively, if kids need to take a break in the late afternoon, I’ve seen the bus ride calm young ones down and even lull babies to sleep despite the driver narrating the entire trip. (Location: Front Street)

Kids Play Areas

Other popular activities at San Diego Zoo for kids include the various play areas. The most popular include the Koala Klimber in the Australian Outback and the Polar Play Area near the polar bears. But, there are chances to play all over the Zoo.

Balboa Park Miniature Train

This fun San Diego Zoo attraction is located just outside of the exit. It’s a 3-minute ride in a small but very cool model G16 train, a rare antique that is among roughly 50 left in the world, around this side of Balboa Park. A small fee is required to ride.

How to Interact with San Diego Zoo Animals

The best way to enjoy animal interactions or close animal encounters at the San Diego Zoo is via a San Diego Zoo tour. Even now, some are available for private buyout. Inside Look tours take visitors into off-exhibit areas and include some special experiences that vary based on what the keepers think is best on the day for the guests and animals. This is what I would recommend if you’re looking for up-close experiences.

The Exclusive VIP Experience though offers a customized experience that includes animal interactions and access to keeper-only areas with a private guide for up to five hours. It comes with a heftier price tag but is ideal for people who are looking for the best San Diego Zoo experience possible.

Many people ask whether there is a petting zoo. The sheep, goats, and a few pigs that you could normally interact with at the Zoo have been moved to the Safari Park while the new Sanford Children’s Zoo is under construction.

What are your favorite San Diego Zoo animals and attractions?

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