There may not be a more important attraction right now on San Francisco's popular Pier 39 than the Aquarium of the Bay. A four-year drought in California has deeply affected the Bay, a jewel that sparkles more than any high-rise in the Bay Area.
Sea lions in the bay entertain the crowd near the Aquarium of the Bay — Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy
Because it's a natural mix of salt water from the Pacific and snow melt from the Sierra Mountains, the drought has made the bay saltier, affecting every life form in it. But with the possible return of heavy rains from El Niño, the Bay could be refreshed with a healthy dose of water.
So right now is the best time to visit the Aquarium of the Bay and understand exactly what's at stake.
Aquarium of the Bay on Pier 39 in San Francisco — Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy
The Aquarium is laid out so you get into the deeper parts of the Bay as you move through the exhibit. And, unlike larger and more crowded aquariums, you'll have plenty of time and space to really consider this amazing ecosystem. If the educational placards aren't enough, trained Educators in Aquarium T-shirts are ready to answer any question you might have.
"One species in particular that has been hit hard by the drought has been salmon," Sonja Gomez, Education Manager of the Aquarium of the Bay, explained. "Because salmon spawn in rivers and then head out to the ocean to feed and grow, the return trip has become very difficult with no rain and dry riverbeds."
Sonja Gomez, Education Manager of the Aquarium of the Bay — Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy
Highlights of the sprawling, three-level aquarium include the jellyfish exhibit, illuminated so the jellies seem to throb through the air around you, as well as the petting area, which allows visitors to stroke the rough backs of small sharks and the gliding fins of baby bat rays.
"You have to touch a shark while you're here," Gomez advised. "Where else do you get to do that?"
Petting rays and sharks, oh my! — Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy
But, other than the beautiful San Francisco Bay itself, the highlight of the Aquarium is the "Under the Bay" tunnel. With three hundred feet of crystal-clear tunnels featuring over twenty-thousand marine animals, it's an experience that's hard to forget. To get a sense of the diversity of the life in the bay, take time to stand in the glass tunnel and allow the sealife to visit you.
Aquarium of the Bay tunnel — Photo courtesy of Aquarium of the Bay
"I've worked here nine years, and I still discover new creatures or parts of the tunnel I've never noticed before," Gomez said.
After a visit to this amazing aquarium – especially lingering in the tunnel as all that life moves around you – it's clear why so many have worked so hard to save and protect the beautiful San Francisco Bay.