I'm going to let you in on a not-so-well-kept secret: The Aquarium of the Pacific is not the only marine life center worth visiting in the South Bay/Long Beach area. Sure, it's got flashy exhibits like that charming penguin habitat and exciting shark lagoon. But the steep price of admission ($25.95 for adults, $14.95 for kids) makes it a special-occasion type of destination for most families. A more economical alternative, and a fun and lively destination in its own right, is Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro.
The Cabrillo complex was designed by Frank Gehry and is located in San Pedro's charming Cabrillo Beach Coastal Park, which is also home to a kids' play area, beaches, tide pools, a native garden and a saltwater marsh. Parking is reasonably priced and admission to the aquarium is a mere $5 suggested donation for adults, $1 for children and seniors. Cabrillo's main exhibit hall has a vaguely catacomb-like feeling that encourages exploration, with each new room feeling like a cool discovery.
In the Sandy Beaches habitat, I think I was just as excited if not more so than my six-year-old to discover that live sand dollars are actually covered in fuzzy purple cilia, and to find flatfish hiding in the sand at the bottom of another tank. We got up close and personal with the hardy anemones, snails, sea stars, mussels, sponges, and barnacles in the Rocky Shores and touch tank exhibits, learning how to identify many of the strange creatures we'd spotted in tide pools during our trips to the beach over the summer. And pretty much every visitor was mesmerized by the jellyfish that were beautifully and spookily lit up with different colored spotlights in the Open Ocean exhibit, as well as the mammoth, awe-inspiring whale skeletons suspended from the ceiling.
Cabrillo's separate Exploration Center features interactive exhibits geared to both aspiring marine biologists of school age, and wee ones who just like to touch squishy things. The larger-than-life "worm's eye view" mudflat exhibit shows what types of creatures live above and below the surface of SoCal's perpetually imperiled wetlands. The "crawl in" aquarium is another big hit, allowing small folks (and limber adults) to poke their heads up inside a tank to be surrounded by fish and kelp, kind of like a dry version of snorkeling. The Exploration Center's Watershed exhibit and Naturalist's Corner provide more hands-on opportunities for kids and adults to learn more about the dramatic impact we land dwellers have on ocean life.
Cabrillo Marine Aquarium offers programs, activities, and events year-round for both kids and adults, including day camps, educator training, sandcastle building contests, salt marsh tours and coastal cleanup days. And while you're in San Pedro, it's absolutely worth paying a visit to the Marine Mammal Care Center, located just a few miles away from the aquarium at Fort MacArthur. It's open to the public daily from 10am to 4pm; admission and parking are free, but donations are greatly welcomed. The MMCC rescues and cares for sick, injured and orphaned marine mammals, and it's both delightful and life affirming to watch the rehabilitated sea lions, harbor seals and elephant seals frolic in their clean pools and nuzzle their caregivers.
Cabrillo Marine Aquarium
3720 Stephen M. White Drive
San Pedro, CA 90731
Marine Mammal Care Center
3601 S. Gaffey St. #8
San Pedro, CA 90731