San Diego’s Birch Aquarium: A Worthwhile Alternative to SeaWorld

Many San Diego visitors forego visiting the Birch Aquarium at Scripps in favor of the more glitzy SeaWorld. The aquarium offers a wonderful, low-key alternative to its famous competitor.


The Birch Aquarium’s Kelp Tank in the Hall of Fishes

If you only have a few days in San Diego, you have some cash to spare, and you want to see killer whales and dolphins performing splashy tricks, then go to SeaWorld. If you are on a tight budget, you are looking for an educational hands-on experience, or you are traveling with a baby or toddler who will have little interest in shows, choose Birch Aquarium. Admission prices are significantly lower and parking is free. Also, the aquarium’s interactive exhibits encourage children and adults to think, not just be entertained.

Here’s a bit about what the Birch Aquarium has to offer…

“The Legacy” Whale Sculpture Fountain & Memorial
The impressive “Legacy” Whale Sculpture Fountains greet visitors to the aquarium. Kids love dipping their hands in the water and chasing each other around the giant whale statues just outside the aquarium’s entrance.


“The Legacy” Whale Sculpture Fountains

Hall of Fishes
Wander through the Hall of Fishes and peer at amazing creatures like jelly fish, eels, and colorful fish from around the world. The octopus exhibit is my favorite. When my daughter was a baby and I held her up to the glass to view the eight-legged creature, the normally fuchsia-colored octopus shrunk itself into a small white ball before violently throwing itself against the exhibit’s glass. From reading the exhibit information, I learned the octopus will change colors before attacking prey or when agitated. Apparently my infant looked like a yummy (or threatening) snack!


Jelly fish in the Hall of Fishes

Another crowd pleaser is the large Kelp Forest Tank, which spans an entire wall and is filled with leopard sharks and other fish, huge and small. This is a nice place for parents to rest a bit while the kids climb up and down the carpeted bench seats and gaze at the giant display of fish.

Tide Pool Plaza
In the outdoor Tide Pool Plaza kids can pet animals like sea cucumbers and sea stars. Staff and volunteers are pleased to share their knowledge of the sea life with you. The sweeping view of the ocean in the distance isn’t bad either.

Feeling the Heat: The Climate Change
This exhibit uses interactive videos, games, and displays to teach how the actions of human beings impact nature’s delicate balance and what we can do to have a positive impact on our oceans’ future.


One of the many interactive displays in the Feeling the Heat: The Climate Change exhibit

There’s Something About Seahorses
Learn about seahorses and seadragons, as well as tricks these unique animals and others use to camouflage themselves in There’s Something About Seahorses.


My son playing in the Camouflage Corral, where kids can attempt to “hide” stuffed sea creatures in manmade seaweed displays (2010)

Smargon Courtyard
The Smargon Courtyard is an outdoor area where you can ham it up in a giant model of a shark’s mouth, view tropical shark tanks in the Shark Reef, and learn about water through play. I always have a hard time pulling my children away from the Wonders of Water display, where kids build dams, create rapids, and race plastic boats in tables of moving water.


My mom and daughter posing for the camera at the aquarium (2005)

Splash Café
The aquarium’s outdoor café offers sandwiches and salads. The food is fine but my advice is to bring a sack lunch or plan to eat elsewhere before or after your visit. Whereas at some sites, the food is part of the experience, here the marine life and exhibits are the stars.


The Birch Aquarium’s Splash Café

Book & Gift Shop
Visitors can find an array of ocean-themed toys, books, wind-chimes, and other tchochkes in the aquarium’s Book & Gift Shop. Proceeds benefit the aquarium, which is a non-profit. Those with wheelchairs or strollers will exit through here. For an inexpensive souvenir of your visit, imprint a penny with a shark, whale, or fish design in the machines just outside the store.

Why I am a Member of Birch Aquarium
I have nothing against SeaWorld. I have visited the amusement park numerous times with my family. But as a San Diego resident, I renew my membership year after year to the Birch Aquarium at Scripps. The cost of membership is reasonable and comes with a pack of passes and discount coupons for friends and visitors. Plus, I feel good knowing my money is going towards saving our oceans.

The beauty of a visit to the Birch Aquarium is its simplicity. The focus is on education and conservation, not big shows and rides. Its small size and low cost make it an easy activity to tackle with children. And, kids just love getting upclose to learn about fish and other sea creatures!

Which are you more interested in visiting, the Birch Aquarium or SeaWorld? Let us know in the comments!

About Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama

Colleen Lanin is a mom of two and the founder/editor-in-chief of TravelMamas.com. As the author of THE TRAVEL MAMAS' GUIDE, she teaches parents not only how to survive a trip with children, but also how to love exploring the world with their offspring. Her stories have appeared online and in print for such outlets as the "Today" show, NBCNews.com, Parenting Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, Chicago Tribune, Expedia, San Diego Family Magazine, and more. Colleen teaches blogging classes and has given travel tips on television, radio, and as a paid video blogger. She has a master’s degree in business administration with a background in marketing.

Comments

  1. Yet another reason why we need to go back to San Diego. :) There are just too many fun things to do there for one visit. I missed out on this aquarium but it looks like it will be a fun outing.

  2. Great report, Colleen! Now I wanna go there!

  3. Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

    Thanks for you kind comments, Amy & Lisa! I’d be happy to take either of you to Birch Aquarium next time you are in San Diego!

  4. This is definitely on my list next time I go to San Diego!

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  7. Birch Aquarium! So wonderful they are not in it for selfish reasons and help protect our oceans. My parents took me to Seaworld several times as a child and I just remember the last time, I was maybe 7 or 8. There was a small very crowded tank of dolphins packed like sardines in a can with people just staring down at them making little comments and jokes. The dolphins were obviously anxious and thrashing about in that tank. I had the strong feeling they were angry at the people and only now I can realize why. Seaworld is a disgusting place that will end when more people learn the truth of what it is. There are other ways to amuse your children then by taking them to look at miserable animals sentenced to life without freedom.

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