Besides year-round ice cream weather, one of the biggest perks of coastal LA living is access to some amazing aquariums. Your ocean explorers will go wild at these fabulous places filled with hands-on underwater adventures. From the big daddy in Long Beach to the small yet fabulous tanks at the end of the Manhattan Beach pier, read on to discover are 7 super ways to get up close and personal with all kinds of animals that live in the sea.

photo: Shahrzad Warkentin

Aquarium of the Pacific
So this spot is a pretty obvious one, but it would be impossible to make a list of the best aquariums in LA without mentioning it. Chances are you’ve probably already been here (if not, make plans immediately!), but there may be some unique elements you missed. Besides the dozens of tanks, exhibits, and touch pools, the Aquarium of the Pacific also offers many special events and programs that can make an ordinary visit to the aquarium and unforgettable one. If your the family’s older oceanographers (15 & up) are scuba certified and you don’t mind dropping a cool $299, you can actually go for a dive in the 350,000 Tropical Reef Habitat.

For something equally awesome that doesn’t require scuba gear, check out the Animal Encounters experiences ($109 per person) where you can get a behind the scenes, private tour of the aquarium and then get up close and personal with some of the inhabitants, including the penguins, sea lions, and even sharks, for a feeding. If you’re not looking to spend quite that much, you can purchase much less extravagant tickets for the 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 & up).

100 Aquarium Way
Long Beach

Aquariums Cabrillophoto: Jenn J. via Yelp

Cabrillo Marine Aquarium
Designed by Frank Gehry, the aquarium facility is an exciting sight in and of itself. Housed within is the largest collection of Southern California native marine life. With teaching displays and microscope set-ups, this aquarium is less about entertainment and more about active learning, but make no mistake; you will have so much fun you might not notice you are actually getting smarter.

Don’t miss the Whale Graveyard where your little excavators will love checking out the bones of a giant whale, which they are actually invited to touch. The walk-in fish tank allows kids to stand in a bubble at the center of a tank is definitely a kid-pleaser too. Besides the aquarium itself, the Cabrillo Coastal Park offers plenty to explore, with a small botanical garden, salt marsh, and the Point Fermin Tidepools along Cabrillo Beach, which is home to the famed grunion run. With a suggested donation of just $5 for adults and $1 for kids, this is a much less expensive aquatic outing than the Long Beach aquarium.

3720 Stephen M. White Drive
San Pedro

piertouchtankphoto: Erin Harris

Heal The Bay’s Santa Monica Pier Aquarium
Despite being small in size, this little aquarium tucked under the Santa Monica Pier packs in plenty of hands-on fun. Your little explorers will discover over 100 different marine species all of which are native to the Santa Monica Bay. The highlight among the exhibits are easily the touch tanks, where you can get to know the seas stars, sea urchins, snails, and crabs. 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 Tuesdays and Fridays at 2:30 p.m. and see the shark feeding on Sundays at 3:30 p.m. Younger under sea explorers will enjoy visiting on Saturdays when the aquarium hosts an ocean-themed story time. Make a day of it and hit the Pier afterwards, for carousel rides and ice cream!

1600 Ocean Front Walk
Santa Monica

Aquariums Science Centerphoto: Shahrzad Warkentin

California Science Center
Between the space shuttle, IMAX theater and dozens of awesome exhibits, the Science Center is a full day of (free for everything but IMAX) fun. One of the kid-approved favorites is the Ecosystems exhibit, which features a giant kelp forest, as well as fish and ocean life from across the globe, like Hawaiian reef fish and African lake fish. Head outside to the tide pools and pet some starfish while you learn about how waves affect the marine life. With plenty to touch and look at, the exhibits will entice little ones and entertain big kids all at once, and you will all probably learn a thing or two. Try and time your visit to coincide with the Science Spectacular dive show, at 11 a.m. or 1:30 p.m. (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 Drive
Exposition Park

Aquariums Roundhousephoto: Yuri K. via Yelp

Roundhouse Aquarium
This small, but exciting and completely free aquarium sits on the end of the Manhattan Beach Pier, making it the perfect spot to take a break from the sun and get up close with local ocean dwellers. It won’t take long to explore the circular exhibit inside the aptly named roundhouse, which makes it perfect for younger explorers with short attention spans, or as a fun stop during a bike ride on the beach path or lunch break on a beach day. 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. Don’t forget to snap some silly shots with the fiberglass shark that lives on the backside of the building.

2 Manhattan Beach Blvd
Manhattan Beach

photo: Jenn J. via Yelp

The SEA Lab
The LA Conservation Corps’ center isn’t an aquarium, but it’s a perfectly sized interactive space with touch tanks, tours and interactive activities. Young kids will never feel overwhelmed and the incredibly helpful volunteer staff is friendly and always ready to answer questions. It’s the perfect way to spend a morning with your littlest fish fans. Every Saturday at noon they’re is a public fish feeding, where for $2, kids can help feed the fish in the tide-pool tank. And on the first Saturday 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 Tuesday-Friday from 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

1021 N. Harbor Dr.
Redondo Beach

Aqauriums Naturephoto: Shahrzad Warkentin

Nature’s Aquarium
Turn a day at the beach into a learning adventure when you explore Mother Nature’s aquarium, aka, the Malibu Lagoon State Beach. The rocky shoreline is the perfect place for your little biologists to discover how LA’s native sea creatures live in their natural habitats. You’ll spot tiny crabs, starfish, and plenty of sea urchins in the shallow pools that form among the rocks. Be sure and bring along shoes fit for climbing on slippery rocks.  It’s helpful to check the tides ahead of time so that you can plan your visit around low tide, to get the best access.

23200 Pacific Coast Highway

What LA aquarium does your family love to visit? Share your favorite in the comments!

—Shahrzad Warkentin