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

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Many vacationers forego Birch Aquarium in favor of glitzier SeaWorld San Diego. But there are many reasons to visit this smaller, educational sea life attraction. Read this review to learn why to visit Birch Aquarium in La Jolla during your family holiday.

Beautiful fish and coral at Birch Aquarium at Scripps in La Jolla

Tropical fish and coral in the Hall of Fishes

1. “The Legacy” Whale Sculpture Fountains & Memorial

The impressive “Legacy” Whale Sculpture Fountains greet visitors to Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Kids love dipping their hands in the water and tossing coins for a wish. Then they’ll want to chase each other around the giant whale statues.

"The Legacy" Whale Sculpture Fountains at Birch Aquarium in La Jolla

“The Legacy” Whale Sculpture Fountains 

2. Hall of Fishes

Wander through the Hall of Fishes and peer at amazing creatures like jelly fish, eels, a loggerhead turtle, and colorful fish from around the world. The octopus exhibit is my favorite. 

Octopus at Birch Aquarium at Scripps

Octopus at Birch Aquarium in La Jolla

3. Giant Kelp Forest

Another crowd pleaser is the Giant Kelp Forest. This large tank spans an entire wall and is filled with leopard sharks and other fish — big and small. This is a nice place for parents to rest a bit while the kids gaze at the fish or climb up and down the carpeted bench seats.

Kids at the Kelp Forest Tank at San Diego Birch Aquarium

Everyone loves the Kelp Forest Tank 

4. Tide Pool Plaza

In the outdoor Tide Pool Plaza, kids can pet ocean animals like slimy sea cucumbers and scratchy sea stars. Guests can also touch baby Horn Sharks, Swell Sharks, Round Rays, and other local animals. Staff and volunteers are pleased to share their knowledge of sea life with you. 

Tide Pool Plaza at San Diego Birch Aquarium

Tide Pool Plaza 

5. Seadragons & Seahorses

View beautiful seahorses and seadragons in this mesmerizing exhibit. Here you’ll view Weedy and Leafy varieties of sea dragons, as well as several species of seahorses and pipe fish. Birch Aquarium in La Jolla is one of the only aquariums in the world that breeds these fascinating creatures.

Seadragons & Seahorses exhibit

Seadragons & Seahorses exhibit 

6. Sharks in the Smargon Courtyard

You can view tropical shark tanks in the outdoor Smargon Courtyard. The sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean in the distance isn’t bad either.

View of the Pacific Ocean from the Smargon Courtyard

View of the Pacific Ocean from the Smargon Courtyard

7. Unique Gift Shop

Visitors will find a fun array of ocean-themed toys, books, wind chimes, and other goodies in the Birch Aquarium Gift Shop. Proceeds benefit this non-profit organization. 

Birch Aquarium Gift Shop

Ocean-themed gift shop 

8. Splash Café by the French Gourmet

Birch Aquarium’s outdoor café offers sandwiches, salads, burgers, small bites, and pastries. For breakfast, there’s a hot croissant sandwich with egg, cheese and your choice of ham or bacon. In addition to coffees, juices, and bottled drinks — parents can even order beer, wine, or a canned cocktail. Splash Café is located outside the entrance to the aquarium, so no entrance fee is required to dine here.

Splash Café by the French Gourmet

Splash Café by the French Gourmet 

9. Education and Hands-On Learning

The beauty of a visit to San Diego 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. Plus, kids just love getting up-close to learn about fish and other sea creatures!

Educational exhibit at Birch Aquarium

Educational exhibit 

10. Birch Aquarium with Babies, Toddlers and Children

Parents traveling with babies, toddlers and preschoolers may find that young children have little interest in SeaWorld San Diego shows and prefer seeing fishies up-close at Birch Aquarium instead.

Every other Wednesday, the aquarium hosts Toddler Time at 10 am for guests aged 5 and younger (with a caregiver). Toddler Time activities vary and may include arts and crafts, story time, musical guests and more.

Toddler playing at Birch Aquarium in La Jolla

My son at Birch Aquarium when he was a toddler (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

11. Affordable Alternative to SeaWorld San Diego

If you have cash to spare and you want to see killer whales and dolphins performing splashy tricks, then go to SeaWorld. Those on a tight budget, however, should choose 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 renewed my membership year after year to the Birch Aquarium in La Jolla.

Interested in visiting both? Take a look at my tips for visiting SeaWorld San Diego!

Scripps Birch Aquarium in San Diego with kids

Kids in the Hall of Fishes (Photo credit: Wayne Martin Belger, courtesy of Birch Aquarium)

12. Birch Aquarium Membership

If you’re a Southern California resident, or you plan to visit San Diego a few times in one year, then I recommend purchasing a membership. The cost is reasonable and comes with a pack of passes and discount coupons for members and friends. Plus, you can feel good knowing your money is going toward saving our oceans.

Want to learn more about Birch Aquarium in La Jolla? Read additional Birch Aquarium reviews on TripAdvisor.

San Diego, California beach scene

La Jolla Shores Beach (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Explore More of San Diego and La Jolla

There is so much for families to enjoy in Southern California, it can be hard to narrow it down. Start with our list of the best attractions in San Diego for kids.

For a truly unique vacation stay, take a look at our La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club review to discover what makes this hotel so special. 

Do you love animals? Then you will definitely want to check out our San Diego Zoo guide!

Birch Aquarium vs. SeaWorld San Diego

Save these Birch Aquarium Tips

For future reference, be sure to save these tips for visiting San Diego Birch Aquarium. Simply pin the image above to Pinterest. We hope you’ll follow Travel Mamas on Pinterest while you’re at it!

Which are you more interested in visiting: Birch Aquarium in La Jolla or SeaWorld San Diego? Let us know in the comments below!

All photos by Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography unless otherwise noted.

About Colleen Lanin

Colleen Lanin is the founder/editor-in-chief of TravelMamas.com. 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, NBCNews.com, 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.

Comments
  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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