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Ballet of Marine Life: Aquarium of the Bay, San Francisco

San Francisco’s Aquarium of the Bay brings to life the denizens of San Francisco Bay and water environs of Northern California, writes Al Auger.

(Above): A glass tunnel offers a stunning full-immersion experience of viewing aquatic life at the Aquarium of the Bay.

In San Francisco is a venue that brings to its visitors the story of the life and survival to be found in arguably Northern California’s most important natural environment. The Aquarium of the Bay at Pier 39 in The City literally brings to life the denizens of San Francisco Bay and water environs of Northern California. And that is the essence of the visitor’s experience: No matter where you turn there is activity of ongoing life under and above the world of water. Opened in 1996, the Aquarium of the Bay has been recreated as a non-profit institute and has recently redesigned its 65,000 square foot, 2-level interior. You are, if you will, nose to nose with over 20,000 strange and intriguing aquatic animals from the Bay and nearby waters.

Upon entering the aquarium you’re immediately surrounded by an undulating ballet of darting fish the size of your hand to monster sharks menacingly staring with dark eyes that never close. But the aquarium is more than underwater performance art. It’s non-profit parent, the Bay Institute, brings to life the dramatic vision of the importance San Francisco Bay and its connections with the Delta agriculture, the rivers and lakes that populate the north state and facilitate a broad and involved eco-system series of programs.

(Above): The Aquarium of the Bay at Pier 39 in San Francisco is a popular destination for tourists. Kids in particular delight in the fascinating wildlife on offer at the Aquarium of the Bay, situated right at the hub of the tourist magnet of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.

Its most popular and seductive draws are the two acrylic tunnels, holding over 700,000 gallons of filtered bay water, where you are literally surrounded by over 20,000 brilliant exotic fish and animals from the Bay including “Bubette,” a 300-pound black sea bass, rockfish, wolf eels, well-known Bay Area leopard sharks and only-in-San Francisco sex-changing California sheephead can be found in the first tunnel. Looking into the deep, black eyes of the Bay’s biggest predator, a 10-foot long sevengill shark sends chills up your back.

As you watch the undulating giant octopus in its lair, step back and revisit the terror films of the hero saving his life-love from the terrible fate in the embrace of the undersea monster. Even stranger than the sex-changing sheephead fish is the bay pipefish, a second cousin to seahorses, where the male give birth.

(Above): Replica of the jaw of a 50-ton, 50-foot megalodon shark at the Aquarium of the Bay.

But there is also an abundance of ethereal beauty to be found as well.

As wonderful as the underwater performance artists are to watch, the stars of the aquarium are the children. The Aquarium has dedicated itself to reaching out to the children with displays and programs especially designed for them. What fun as the kids of all ages surround the Touch the Bay pool where they can actually reach out and touch leopard and swell sharks, bat rays and skates; all without danger or threat to the children and under the watchful eye of a docent.
Another touch pool features sea stars (“don’t call them star fish,” admonishes a docent.); there are colorful sea cucumbers, urchins and a host of other entertaining players. The giggles and smiles are the highlights for the overseeing adults.

The land-dwellers that are just as important to the water environment of the Bay are found at the PG&E Bay Lab. Here are the familiar Pacific tree frogs, king snakes and Western pond turtles. The exhibit carries a series of climate change messages that affect the residents here and the water-borne environment so dramatically. In addition, the lab presents a daily schedule of hands-on science experiments and nature-led presentations and animal encounters.

(Above): Exquisite marine life on view at the Aquarium of the Bay.

The 65,000 square feet of exhibitions is seemingly a small space for an aquarium to effectively display and instruct its broad programs, but due to its unique interior layout it becomes a big world of life above and under the sea. Much of this is because of the large army of docents highly educated in the water-world by the Aquarium staff. And they obviously thoroughly enjoy their job and communicating with the guests.

Certainly the most colorful exhibition in the Aquarium is the wall of moon jellies and Pacific sea nettles. Sometimes called jellyfish, they are brainless and heartless and are over 95 percent water. Yet they bring to the Aquarium a luminous ballet of neon luminosity as they weave their long tendrils in search of plankton, small shrimps, fish eggs and larvae. Growing up to 15 inches in diameter, sea jellies have survived from the days of the dinosaur, some 230 million years ago. The group before the wall of dance is quiet, completely in thrall by the hypnotizing scene.

There are more than 2,000 species around the world and their family reproduction is most ingenious. Sea jelly eggs, according to a docent, are fertilized when the female ingests floating sperm that were released by an adult male. When the female releases her fertilized eggs, they develop into a larval form known as a planula. This floats in the water until in finds a hard surface and anchors itself to morph into a polyp. The polyp then divides itself into a stacked series of saucer-like clones that then break off and swim away. These “ephyras” are basically very small sea jellies. As they grow they mature into adult sea jellies.

(Above): More indolent and louder than college frat brats, these sea lions are on view at San Francisco’s Pier 39, and you don’t even have to pay to see them.

As a non-profit and environmentally-based organization, the Aquarium of the Bay is one of only 35 aquariums that has been accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. They offers myriad programs to educate and illustrate the importance of the world of water that is the very life of Northern California. These include hands-on classes and tours to K-12 students and teachers. The number to date has reached over 100,000. Another popular special event is the behind-the-scenes tour made by reservations only.

The Aquarium of the Bay is an affiliate of the non-profit Bay Institute, based in Novato, Calif., that has successfully developed and led research, science, education and advocacy programs to revitalize San Francisco’s imperiled ecosystems for nearly 30 years. There is simply not enough space here to detail the vast expanse of programs that has made the Bay Institute a leader in the conservation of the San Francisco Bay and its watershed. Together, adds a spokeswoman, these two non-profits have protected, restored and inspired conservation of San Francisco Bay from the Sierra to the sea. For more detailed information check out their Website: aquariumofthebay.org.

(Above): A shark at the Aquarium of the Bay.

Aquarium of the Bay:

Location. Pier 39, The Embarcadero an Beach St., San Francisco, at the entrance to Fisherman’s Wharf.

Admission. Adults, $16.00; Seniors/children (3-11), $14.00 (under 2 free)

Hours. Open all-year-round (except Christmas Day). Weekdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and weekends, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Summer hours are 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day.

Contact information. Call 888-SEA-DIVE or 615-623-5300 or visit their Website at www.aquariumofthebay.org. Bay Institute Website, www.infobay.org.

Behind the scenes tour. Children must be 5 years or older. Admission is Adults, $21.00; Seniors/children (5-11), $14.00. Price includes Aquarium admission.

Bay cruise. Cruise is one-hour and departs approximately every 45 minutes. Cruise tickets include Aquarium admission. Children 12 and under must be accompanied by an adult. Adult, $34.00; Children (5-11), $20.00; Children 3-4 need only to purchase an Aquarium admission ticket; Seniors, $23.00.

Al Auger is a freelance writer. He lives in Redding, Calif.


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