Next time you look at the ocean off California, take a moment to think about what goes on beneath the waves.
California’s coastal waters are a complex biological world which nurtures millions of fish, marine mammals, crustaceans and gardens of sea anemones.
It’s also a destination for large ocean wanderers like whales, turtles and Great White Sharks that come to these shores to reproduce, feed or hunt their prey.
Divers can attest to the vast inventory of life they encounter underwater but for those of us who don’t take to the cold underwater environment, there is an easier way to appreciate this vast ecosystem.
Visit the Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
It’s the opening day of a new exhibit in the California Coast section of the aquarium and Steinhart Director Bart Shepherd is excited.
Over the past year, his team has been working on a kind of remodel of the area including a new 2,000 gallon tank that displays the fish and other living creatures found offshore in more than 300 feet of water.
But the exhibit is much more than that. It’s the public’s window into the world they don’t see every day. And bringing that world to life is a responsibility Shepherd takes seriously.
“They (public) only think of the ocean as the surface. They don’t think of what is down below,” he said.
“That is our job as an aquarium, to showcase what’s below.”
The new tank is the cornerstone of a new approach to the coastal waters area which has been in operation since the new academy building opened in 2004.
Located around corner from the existing 90,000 gallon Coastal Waters tank, the area was not as interactive and kid friendly as it could have been, Shepherd explained.
Now where blank blue walls once stood, an interactive lighted display shows the migration routes taken by sharks and marine mammals visiting the California coast.
The display was created in part from data collected by the Hopkins Marine Laboratory operated by Stanford University in Monterey.
The illuminated map shows just how circuitous a route some migrating animals take to get here, Shepherd said.
“It’s not just like ‘Ill take this highway’” he said. “There is a lot of meandering involved.”
Nearby a computerized touch-activated game teaches kids about sea creatures by matching photos and a display explains how the public can get involved in academy research through the Citizen Science program.
The new tank is even built closer to the ground so children can look directly into it without relying on parents to boost them up for viewing.
The new tank contains strawberry anemones, painted greenlings, rosy rockfish and even an fish-eating anemone.
The grey stonework is meant to recreate the underwater seamounts found off the coast which provide a habitat for a wide variety of cold water creatures.
Shepherd explained that the enhanced exhibit also pays tribute to the series of state and federal marine sanctuaries which were developed over the years to protect the kind of marine life on display.
California is unique in having such a well-developed system,he said.
“I grew up on the east coast and Virginia Beach where the ocean front is lined with hotels,’’ he said.
“You can walk two blocks inland and not see the beach. That’s a different kind of place than what we have been able to do here in California. We want to celebrate that.”
For more on California’s federal marine sanctuaries, visit: sanctuaries.noaa.gov.
The California Academy of Sciences is located at 55 Music Concourse Drive.
Hours are 9:30-5:00 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 11:00 a.m. -5:00 p.m. Sunday. For more information, visit: www.calacademy.org.