Angelenos have access to many amazing landscapes: deserts, mountains and, of course, that beautiful Pacific coastline. While living in a coastal city may bring up thoughts of surfboards and boogie boarding, it also presents an opportunity for some great hands-on learning at local aquariums. Whether you feel like taking on a large scale adventure or a more intimate experience, there are so many ways to introduce your family to the wonders of the ocean. Scroll through to check out the top aquariums to visit in the L.A. area.
photo: LeTania Kirkland Smith
Aquarium of the Pacific
This is the Big Kahuna of aquariums in the L.A. area, and totally worth putting on your must-see list if you haven’t been yet. This aquarium houses over 11,000 animals! So whether the family wants to see fish, sea lions or penguins this museum has you covered. From the beautiful two-story tank that draws you in at the entrance to the smaller touch pools where your sea explorers can get hands-on with aquatic life, there is a lot to excited about.
In addition to the exhibits, the aquarium hosts family-friendly festivals open to the public, not to mention parent and me classes that explore specific animals or subjects through play and movement ($49 per parent/child combo).
You can also purchase access to Animal Encounters experiences ($109 per person) where you can get a behind the scenes, private tour of the aquarium and some of its most in-demand inhabitants, including the penguins, sea lions, and even the sharks for a feeding. If you’re not ready for that much commitment, purchase a basic “Behind-The-Scenes Tour” ($19 in addition to admission), which gives you access to sections of the aquarium not open to the public (guests must be 7 and up).
100 Aquarium Way
photo: LeTania Kirkland Smith
Cabrillo Marine Aquarium
Housed in a building designed by the famed Frank Gehry, the CMA has been educating people about marine life since 1935 and boasts the largest collection of Southern California marine life in the world. This aquarium is smaller than Long Beach, which may mean a less overwhelming experience for the younger set. While there are fewer bells and whistles and more focus on education, there is no shortage of fun as interactive learning takes the forefront. There are teaching displays, microscopes and even a discovery room where the family can get marine smart while making art or joining a group lesson.
Be sure to take a look inside the “walk-in” aquarium where the kids can stand in a bubble in the middle of the tank for some thrills. “The Whale Graveyard” is also a must. It’s where everyone is invited to explore and, yes, even touch the bones of a giant whale.
Next to the aquarium, the Cabrillo Coastal Park has lots to explore, with a small botanical garden and salt marsh. Also be sure to check out the Point Fermin Tidepools along Cabrillo Beach, which is home to the famed grunion run—when these silver, sardine-like fish come to shore to mate. The aquarium opens at night Apr.-Jun. to allow visitors to see this nighttime spectacle. With all of this, The CMA only asks a suggested $5 donation for adults and $1 for kids. Talk about a win-win.
3720 Stephen M. White Dr.
photo: Heal the Bay
Heal The Bay’s Santa Monica Pier Aquarium
If you’re looking for another local experience, check out Heal The Bay Aquarium underneath the Santa Monica Pier. This aquarium houses over 100 species that call this bay home. From a meditative experience with the jellyfish to watching a simulated surge as fish rush in the “fast lane” this small, friendly space is sure to please.
Heal the Bay also has the much-loved touch pools if your littles want to get up close and personal. And if they aren’t into touching the animals, check out the Dorothy Green Room for an interactive exhibit where everyone will learn about our urban landscape and shore.
And if you really want a unique, up-close experience, make sure to plan your visit around feeding time when you can watch the staff feed the sea stars on Tues. and Fri. at 2:30 p.m. and the sharks on Sun. at 3:30 p.m.
Mini-marine explorers will enjoy visiting on Sat. when the aquarium hosts an ocean-themed story time. Another plus? You’re at the Santa Monica Pier so you can make an entire day of it complete with a beach visit and a Ferris wheel ride. What more can you ask for? Besides a vacuum for all of that sand on your car floors.
1600 Ocean Front Walk
photo: LeTania Kirkland Smith
California Science Center
While most check out this museum for The Endeavor Space Shuttle and IMAX Theater, one of our favorites is the Ecosystems Exhibit, which features a giant kelp forest and small tanks to explore individual species. Be sure to walk through the aquarium hallway that will transport the littles to an underwater wonder.
Don’t forget to head upstairs where you can view the tank from overhead, experience the touch tanks and even talk to professional divers.
Try to make it in for Science Spectacular dive show, at 11 a.m. or 1:30 p.m. (11 a.m. and 3 p.m. on weekends), where kids can watch divers feed and interact with animals in the tank, and also take questions from little visitors while underwater!
700 Exposition Park Dr.
photo: Yuri K. via Yelp
A very cool and free aquarium located on the Manhattan Beach Pier, this space is undergoing a beautification project (scheduled to open this summer) but the temporary location at the base of the pier is still up and running.
A perfect location for the younger set, this is an easy and quick stop where you’ll see moray eels, rays, and octopi and get hands-on experience with starfish in the touch pools. There is also a small kids nook filled with books and crafty activities. The Roundhouse also has tide pool field classes for kids in first grade and up.
2 Manhattan Beach Blvd.
photo: kim c. via yelp
The L.A. Conservation Corps SEA Lab has been training and employing underserved young people ages 18-24 to lead education programs all over Southern California. This space, in Redondo Beach, is not a formal aquarium but a marine education center with touch pools, tours and lots of interactive learning opportunities.
With this kind of tradition, there are always helpful volunteers around to answer questions for your budding marine biologists. The SEA Lab hosts a public fish feeding Sat. at noon, where for $2, kids can help feed the fish in the tide-pool tank. And on the first Sat. of each month, the SEA Lab hosts Fishtivities with special concerts, games, and crafts. The space is $5 for adults and free for kids and is open Tues.-Fri. from 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. and Sat. and Sun. from 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
1021 N. Harbor Dr.
photo: Shahrzad Warkentin
The Living Aquarium
If you are looking for some living, breathing sea-life action in the sun, then head to Malibu Lagoon State Beach (also known as Surfrider Beach). Check the tide tables before you go because when it is low, it provides a great opportunity to explore the amazing life right at our fingertips. Walk along the sand to explore shells, rocks, seaweed, birds and all the other goodies that come with the Pacific. It’s a good idea to wear water shoes for the slippery rocks. And even if you don’t get wet, it’s a great place to watch surfers in action.
Parking is $12 and includes a short walk to the water. You can also park for free along PCH, but the traffic you face when crossing can be daunting with little ones. And don’t forget you’re in Malibu, which is home to lots of great parks, food and, of course, more beaches.
23200 Pacific Coast Hwy.
Where does your family explore marine life in L.A? Let us know in the comments below!