Aquarium of the Bay: San Francisco's Underwater Adventure

When I traveled to Seattle in the summer of 2011, I declined a visit to the city's aquarium. Looking back on that decision, I regret it, because the aquarium looks very pretty when I see photos of it online. I vowed not to make the same mistake again when I took a holiday to San Francisco last month. The "Aquarium of the Bay" is a small aquarium compared to most, but it promised a lot from what I saw on good ol' Pinterest, and I am happy to report that it did NOT fail to deliver!

The Aquarium of the Bay is extremely easy to access, as its entrance is located right at the mouth of Pier 39 on Fisherman's Wharf. You can buy tickets from a kiosk at the base of the escalator that leads up to the aquarium's elevated entrance, or you can buy tickets directly inside the aquarium before going on a self-guided tour through the building. Tickets cost $24.95 for adults, $14.95 for seniors and children aged 4-12, and families of four can get a deal at $68.00. I'm sure there are plenty of other deals, such as special rates for locals and tour packages, but it is pretty easy to navigate their website so I encourage you to check it out for yourself.

A vibrant starfish greets you in the first room of the Aquarium of the Bay

Some quick facts about the aquarium before I take you on my virtual tour: the aquarium boasts over 20,000 sea creatures, of which their most popular assortment of animals includes sharks and mantra rays. As you stroll through the aquarium, you will walk through two glass tunnels that cut through 700,000 gallons of salt water used to house an amazing variety of swimmers. The aquarium has built several nursery and animal husbandry programs since it opened back in 1996, so a lot of the species living in the tanks have been successfully bred in captivity and were never taken from the wild. (I know a lot of people are against aquariums due to the animals being caged. I don't know if it makes you feel better to know that they aren't missing the wide open ocean because they don't know any better? They also aren't being caught in nets and fried up, so that is a plus too, I suppose.)

I see you, little guy!

When you first walk into the aquarium's main building, you enter a series of showrooms that prepare you for what is to come later on in your aquarium tour. Glass floor to ceiling tanks showcase various exotic fish, like 'Nemo' and 'Dory' (clownfish and blue tang respectively). Sunfish, starfish, urchins, and other creatures adorn these tanks, giving visitors an up-close view of reef life. A tall, circular tank in the centre of one of the rooms features a glittering mass of sardines gliding together in the water.

One of the more brilliant fish tanks at the Aquarium of the Bay

One tank was a reality check for me, displaying what the ocean floor predominately looks like today. Sunken bottles, old tires, and other garbage had been integrated into this remake of the sea floor, with coral decorating the litter like rock candy, and fish flitting in and out of the debris. It was very sad, but also strangely pretty.

The garbage display tank - sad but still kind of pretty...

Past these two showrooms, you are greeted by an aquarium employee who offers to take your photo. You are set against a green screen wall, and the aquarium staff will later superimpose you in front of an image of either the Golden Gate Bridge or a scene from the aquarium. We decided to do a silly one, and the aquarium employee was extremely patient and accommodating for us. We couldn't wait to see the results!

Just beyond the photo booth, visitors will encounter an elevator that leads down into the heart of the aquarium. Our elevator operator was a twenty-something So-Cal surfer dude who recited his spiel on the way down both with boredom AND a sense of humour, something that was oddly impressive.

When the elevator doors parted, I was instantly in awe. The first room past the lift was dark, with tanks along the walls and one large ceiling to floor tank directly in the middle of the circular space. Each tank was softly lit, and inside them luminescent jellyfish floated dreamily through the waters. It was beautiful and mesmerizing: I could have stayed in that room all day.

Beautiful and mesmerizing jellyfish at the Aquarium of the Bay

And then, past this beautifully haunting room, was the first of the two underwater tunnels that I had been so excited to see. Standing inside the tunnel, you had an amazing view of sharks, mantra rays, sturgeon, and other large and small fish. Not only did you see them swimming alongside the tunnel, but quite often you got a really neat view of them as they swam right over top your head towards the opposite side.

A shark swimming right over our heads in the aquarium's tunnel

Very strategic lighting made the tunnels dark enough to see everything in the water beyond the glass, but also offered eerie effects, with green and purple lights highlighting certain areas. The only negative thing about the tunnel areas was that they got quite crowded and a little loud - no one wanted to move on and people tended to congest the area.

The tunnels could get crowded and loud at times.

However, I LOVED walking through the tunnels. As I said before, this aquarium is a small one in the grand scheme of things, so there wasn't a TON to see and do there. But the tunnels made it all worth while. We lingered a lot longer in the second tunnel, because we noticed a really fat manta ray just lounging on the bottom of the 'sea floor', and it seemed to be panting. The other manta rays around it were much flatter and much more active. An aquarium employee stopped by to see what we were all pointing at, and explained to us that this particular manta ray was pregnant and had been for a long time. (Manta rays gestate for about one year.) Her panting was hopefully a sign that she might be ready to go into labour, but the employee also noted that it could be a very long process.

My lovely friend Jennis surrounded by floating manta rays

The aquarium employee also said that they had been watching this particular ray in the hopes they would catch her during or shortly after her delivery, because she was in a tank with sharks. As the aquarium tries to replicate real ocean life as much as possible, she told us that newly born offspring can sometimes be eaten by other animals before the aquarium has a chance to send in a diver and remove the babies. Indeed, smaller sharks seemed to be congregating in the area near this poor pregnant manta ray. We were quite sad by this and stood there for about ten minutes, watching this fish puffing in and out, willing her to pop out her little mantra ray baby. It didn't happen and we had to move on.

Manta rays relaxing on the 'sea floor' of the tunnel aquarium

The tunnels and connecting rooms take you on a loop of the aquarium's lower level. Suddenly, you find yourself back at the elevator and zooming back up to the main floor. There you get to have a bit more of a hands-on experience with the aquarium's touch pools. A guide informs you of the proper manner in which to touch the young manta ray that is zooming through the shallow pool (one finger only, and only on the very tip of the ray's wing). Supposedly you can touch a shark too, but I didn't see one in the pool that day.

There is also a tide pool where you can one-finger touch starfish, urchins, and other tide pooly creatures.

I am a marine explorer and excited about it!

Not only are sea creatures featured in this part of the aquarium, but other reptiles and wildlife can be viewed. Frogs, snakes, and lizards creep around in their glass houses, peering out at you.

One part I didn't enjoy about the touch pool room was the dissection booth, where a young man was cutting open a squid to an audience of rapt children. Yes, it was educational, and yes it was interesting, and yes I caught myself listening to him explain how they created their ink, but I was sad to see that little guy getting all sliced up on a table. I hoped he had died from natural causes first.

The squid dissection in all its inky glory

Finally, we turned a corner and entered a room reserved solely for the river otters. This room made me sad. The male otter was just swimming in endless loops in a little pool, back and forth, back and forth. Then he'd stop, leap out, run to check on his mate, who was sleeping all curled up in her den, and then run back to the pool and just loop and loop and loop. I am no expert on river otters, but to me it seemed like a depressing thing and I felt quite sorry for him. If anyone knows more about the topic, please inform me if this is normal behaviour or not for an otter. I didn't stay long in that room.

After the river otters, the path leads you straight to the gift shop. We weren't in the market for aquarium souvenirs, but we did check out our photo booth results. It was hilarious, and even though we looked like total tourists, we bought it. I think it sums up our entire aquarium experience, don't you?

It is so fun to look ridiculous...

If you do find yourself hanging out on Pier 39 at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, I suggest you take a break from the hot sun and pedestrian chaos to explore the Aquarium of the Bay. It isn't too expensive, it is air conditioned, and it has some really beautiful features. Just go with the flow!

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