Got a couple of hours to spare in the morning or afternoon near La Jolla? Then make a visit to the Birch Aquarium, at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, is perfect for an educational romp with exotic and native Californian marine life. Your budding marine biologists will love to explore all of the interactive exhibits and tide pools (they can touch squishy sea cucumbers!), as well as become completely awe-struck by the 70,000 gallon kelp forest tank with a number of fascinating creatures swimming among the stalks. This intimate aquarium is perfect for kids because of its limited number of exhibits. No one will get moody or tuckered out before the day is done!

What to see:
Besides the amazing kelp forest, there are 60 or so other habitats with fish and sea life from the Pacific Northwest all the way down to the Mexican coast and Caribbean in the Hall of Fishes. Take some time to sit and observe the inhabitants of the kelp forest, and you’ll be surprised at how hypnotic it is to both you and the little ones. There’s also the Shark Reef, where kiddies can press their noses up to tanks where a variety of tropical and reef sharks scoot on by.

With the Feeling the Heat exhibit, little ones and parents alike can test their knowledge about which everyday items help or hinder the environment, learn about how much of an impact the oceans have on global temperatures, and also discover new ways for lowering your CO2 emissions. On the flip side, Boundless Energy has a ton of interactive activities for the kiddos to explore renewable energy sources that are abundant in California: sun, wind, and waves! Be sure to check out the Wonders of Water where your little ones can create rapids, dams, and learn first hand about harnessing the power of rushing water.

Insider’s tip: The little ones won’t be able to stay away from the Wonders of Water exhibit, and will invariable get soaked. Hit up this outdoor exhibit towards the end of your visit and that way the tots can enjoy the mini streams, and not be shivery inside the aquarium. A change of clothes wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

There’s Something About Seahorses, is a crowd favorite. Large glass tanks allow for close up inspection of many varieties of wild seahorses and leafy seadragons. There’s even a video of male seahorses carrying their brood and giving birth! Also, take a quick peek into the seahorse nursery and watch the baby seahorses frolic.

The outdoor Preuss Tide Pool Plaza features three living displays with a number of creepy, crawly, squishy, camouflaged critters that can be observed in their natural habitat. Make sure the kids get to touch a starfish or prickly sea anemone, and that they are respectful of these delicate creatures!

Where it’s at:
2300 Expedition Way in La Jolla

When to go:
A good time to visit is during the week, preferably before noon. There are a lot of school field trips that roll through, and your little tykes shouldn’t have to battle the bigger kids for cool views of the tanks and exhibits.

The Kelp Tank Dive show happens four times a week: Tuesday and Thursday at 12:30 pm, Saturday at 2:00 pm, and Sunday at 10:00 am. There’s also a number of feeding times for all the various sea critters. Check here for times.

Tickets:
Admission cost $12.00 for adults, $8.50 for kids ages 3-17, and those 2 and under are free. Click here for full ticketing information.

Insider Tip: There are a number of ways to get a couple of dollars knocked off the price of admission. AAA cardholders get a $1 reduction. AARP members receive 25% off admission for up to six visitors by showing their membership card when purchasing tickets. Also, Bank of America debit or credit card holders get free admission the first weekend of each month running now through December 2011.

You may also want to consider a Family Membership. This runs $75 for a year of free admission for two adults and kids aged 3-17 and discounts in both the gift shop and café, as well as special events and classes. Not to mention your family would be directly supporting the study and exploration of our oceans.

Where to Grab a Bite:
The Splash Café has the usual coffee, munchables, and sandwiches, but we suggest packing your own lunch and picnicking at one of the many tables or benches provided and enjoying the lovely ocean views.

Insider Tip: Parking is free for the first 3 hours. Believe us, three hours is more than enough time for kids to explore the sea life, learn about water power while getting soaked, handle some starfish and other tide pool members, and have a little snack.

Dress:
Bring a light sweater- you’re still on the coast even if it is San Diego! And a change of clothes. Kids are magnets for water and sand.

Online: aquarium.ucsd.edu/

— Simone Yingst