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

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Most San Diego vacationers forego visiting the Birch Aquarium at Scripps in favor of the more glitzy SeaWorld but there are many reasons to visit this smaller sea life attraction. The aquarium offers a wonderfully low-key alternative to its famous competitor. If you have 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 and you want an educational hands-on experience, choose Birch Aquarium. Parents traveling with babies or toddlers will find that young ones have little interest in SeaWorld shows and prefer seeing fishies up-close at Birch, too. Plus, admission prices are significantly lower and parking is free. Also, the aquarium’s interactive exhibits encourage visitors to think, rather than just be entertained. Read on to learn why to visit San Diego’s Birch Aquarium during your family vacation.

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

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

“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 then chasing each other around the giant whale statues just outside the aquarium’s entrance.

"The Legacy" Whale Sculpture Fountains at Birch Aquarium

“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’s information, I learned the octopus will change colors before attacking prey or when agitated. Apparently my infant looked like a yummy (or threatening) snack. Of course, no one was hurt but it sure was interesting to witness.

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 gaze at the giant display of fish or climb up and down the carpeted bench seats.

Jelly fish in the Hall of Fishes at Birch Aquarium

Jelly fish in the Hall of Fishes

Tide Pool Plaza

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

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

One of the many interactive displays in the Feeling the Heat: The Climate Change exhibit (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

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. Parents and kids can learn useful tips for what we can all do to have a positive impact on our oceans’ future.

Camouflage Corral at San Diego's Birch Aquarium

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

There’s Something About Seahorses

View beautiful seahorses and seadragons in this mesmerizing exhibit. The nearby Camouflage Corral teaches children how these unique animals and others use to camouflage themselves.

Birch Aquarium shark pose

My mom and then-baby daughter posing for the camera at the aquarium (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

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.

Book & Gift Shop

Visitors will find an array of ocean-themed toys, books, wind-chimes, and other goodies in the Book & Gift Shop at Birch Aquarium. Proceeds benefit this non-profit organization. For an inexpensive souvenir of your visit, imprint a penny with a shark, whale, or fish design in the machines just outside the store. Photo booths also make a fun way to remember your visit to Birch Aquarium.

Birch Aquarium's Splash Café

Birch Aquarium’s Splash Café (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Splash Café

Birch 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.

Why I am a Member of Birch Aquarium

I have nothing against SeaWorld San Diego. 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 up-close to learn about fish and other sea creatures!

Read more about Birch Aquarium at Scripps on

Which are you more interested in visiting, Birch Aquarium at Scripps or SeaWorld San Diego? Let us know in the comments below!

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About Colleen Lanin

Colleen Lanin is the founder/editor-in-chief of As the author of her book, "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,, Parenting Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, Chicago Tribune, Expedia, San Diego Family Magazine, and more. Colleen gives tips on television, radio, and as a public speaker. She has a master’s degree in business administration with a background in marketing. She lives in Arizona with her husband and two kids.

  1. Amy @ The Q Family says

    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. Lisa Bergren says

    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!

  5. Deadra Langille says

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  6. Very greatful for the information presented. I have a great time reading your content. Keep it up.

  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.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Amber – Thank you for your comment. I like SeaWorld as well as Birch Aquarium, but I understand your viewpoint. Similar to Birch Aquarium, SeaWorld makes many efforts to protect the world’s oceans.

  8. We are in San Diego for the first time! Besides many days planned for beach time and “lazy” time spent at “home” we are planning to visit Legoland (boys are 7 and 5), the zoo and the Birch Aquraium. We have a Sea Life Aquarium near us in Phoenix, and Sea World isn’t so interesting these days. Plus my hubby exuded enthusiasm hearing it is part of SC San Diego. Yay for education and conservation!!

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