The California Academy of Sciences is a glorious mash-up of aquarium, gardens, geography, science and early history museums.
It’s great for everyone from toddlers to adults, and it’s my favourite tourist attraction in San Francisco.
The Academy is split over several levels: The Rainforest, the Aquarium, the Galapagos Islands, the Earthquake Zone, the Rooftop Garden, and a new exhibit – The Skulls.
Level 1 – Rainforests of the World
Rainforests of the World is the most impressive exhibit at the Academy. Covering several floors, and the flooded forest section of The Aquarium, the 90 foot-diameter dome mimics the layers of rainforests across the world.
The canopy of tall, green trees with epiphytes (plants growing on other plants, like airplants and orchids) and lianas (hanging vines), and light filtering through the crowded plants really gives this exhibit an authentic feel.
In this exhibit, you see animals and plants from rainforest habitats in Borneo, Madagascar, Costa Rice and the Amazon. It’s filled with butterflies flitting about (much to North Nomad’s dismay – he hates butterflies!), and when you peek over the railings, you catch glimpses of large fish in the flooded forest floor.
But the stars of the Amazon are the Macaw parrots and the tanks of bright frogs, lizards and snakes upstairs. Learn from my mistake – don’t take photos of the parrots! I took a couple, and after a crowd of tall people moved, I saw a sign saying no photos of the parrots.
You exit Rainforests of the World through an elevator at the highest level of the rainforest, which descends into…
Lower Level — The Aquarium
This one level exhibit is the equal of most aquariums I’ve been to. It has hundreds of tanks with animals from all over the planet.
The Philipines Coral Reef exhibit is a vibrant display of the wide range of fish species and coral. Apparently this is the world’s deepest living coral display! Which is pretty cool after you’ve been to aquariums that use manufactured coral. I was a fan of the cute little lumpsucker fish, who aren’t very good swimmers and attach themselves to shells and rocks.
My favourite sections were the Amazon Flooded Forest and the Discovery Tidepool. The Amazon Flooded Forest is an extension of the Rainforest exhibit. The size of the mouths on the fish and the submerged plant roots alongside turtles were really cool.
And because I’m a four year old at heart, the tidepool/touchpool was a lot of fun. Though I had to jostle for position amongst the toddlers, but got to touch some star fish in the end!
Back up at Level 1 — Islands of Evolution, African Hall (also: reef lagoon, swamp, earthquake simulator, children’s gallery, the Planetarium, Human Odysessy, Academy Café and Moss Room Restaurant)
Claude, the albino alligator, who lives in the swamp, is easily visible from Level 1, along with the snapping turtles. A little further up is The Islands of Evolution.
The Academy calls the Galapagos Islands “living laboratories of evolution”. The islands provide an environment for plants and animals that are mostly free from predators and competition, so they’ve adapted into different forms to their ancestors. Natural selection can be easily observed in islands like these.
This section has a large wall of fish and marine life x-rays and preserved bodies. Academy scientists use fish x-rays to study evolution and relationships between species. Scientists also clear away tissue and stain bones with dyes to get a better look at fish.
We give the earthquake simulator a miss. On both occasions we’ve visited, the lines have been beyond our patience levels. We also skip the planetarium shows, science in action short films, and the children’s gallery.
The African Hall reminds me of something out of a horror movie. It feels like a museum of dead animals, except for the live penguin colony. The African animals are impressive… but a little creepy!
Levels 2, 3, and the Roof — The Skulls Exhibit, Naturalist Centre, Upper Gallery – Evolving Traditions, and the Living Roof: Observation Deck
The new Skulls Exhibit is a fascinating display. The study of skulls helps scientists understand how animals lived and evolved. Their bones tell the story of their diet, behaviour, and where they lived.
An enormous African Elephant skull sits at the entrance of this exhibit. Walking through, we see tiny delicate skulls, and skulls with huge, curved horns. Now I understand how all of the devil folklore came about in the southern American states!
The back wall is covered in sea lion skulls. This collection was curated by Ray Bandar, who collected, cleaned and prepared most of the skulls, and by Moe Flannery who continued Ray’s work. It catalogues information about the Californian sea lion population.
We also see how bones are cleared in nature, with tanks of flesh eating beetles working away at small rodents.
The Living Roof is 2.5 acres of native Californian plants covering the outside dome section housing Rainforests of the World. Aside from being a pretty view of the gardens surrounding the Academy, the garden roof is also hard at work. The roof canopy is covered in sixty thousands photovoltaic cells, supplying 250,000 kilowatt-hours of clean energy per year. It also prevents the release of more than 22.5 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year.
The California Academy of Sciences also has a great international food court catering to every diet requirement.
If you read this blog frequently, you’d know that is a little tricky getting North Nomad and I fed in the same location. You don’t always get hot dogs and ribs side by side with tofu and tempeh! But you can at the Academy of Sciences food court.
North Nomad has a hot dog and a soft taco with chicken.
He’s unimpressed with the hot dog, only having a couple of bites. But he reports that the taco is yummy, and makes up for the hot dog.
I have the veggie rice paper rolls for starters.
The veggie rolls are stuffed with a variety of stir fried mushrooms. And they’re so huge that they could be a meal on their own. They come with a peanut satay sauce, which is good, but the soy is a little overbearing.
And because I didn’t realise how huge the veggies rolls would be, I’ve also ordered a main: the squash and cauliflower curry, with brown rice, and snow peas in olive oil and salt. The curry is coconut based, giving it a deliciously creamy taste. The snow peas are tasty, but the rice is a bit meh
Full, we head off to brave the horrid rush hour traffic from San Francisco back to Gilroy.
Location: Golden Gate Park, 55 Music Concourse Drive, San Francisco CA 94118
Cost: General Admission Adult $34.95, Seniors (65+) $29.95, Student $29.95, Youths (12-17) $29.95, Kids (4-11) $24.95, Kids 3 and under are free.
Hours: Monday to Saturday 9:30am to 5:00pm, Sunday 11:00am to 5:00pm. Closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Extended holiday season hours (check website for details). Every Thursday night from 6:00pm to 10:00pm, visitors 21+ can go to the Academy for music, science, entertainment and drinks.
Contact Details: 415 379 8000, email firstname.lastname@example.org
NB: All of the exhibits, bathrooms, and food/drink areas are wheelchair accessible, with a limited number of wheelchairs available on request.
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