Birch Aquarium celebrates 20 years bringing ocean education to San Diego
by Kendra Hartmann
Published - 09/12/12 - 04:02 PM | 127639 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print

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Staying power is often hard to come by these days, and it’s even harder for a nonprofit organization. That’s why this month, Birch Aquarium is celebrating a milestone as the aquarium turns 20 years old on Sept. 16.

With two decades of educating the public about the ocean under its belt, Birch is looking forward to the next 20 years by reflecting on its contributions to the community and to ocean science and conservation.

“We feel full of achievement for what we’ve done in 20 years, and what we want to do in the future,” said Nigella Hilgarth, executive director of the aquarium. “We’ve reached over 6 million people, and over a million children in our education programs.”

Birch Aquarium wasn’t always equipped to achieve such lofty ambitions. Prior to 1992, the aquarium was housed in a much smaller facility on La Jolla Shores Drive. It contained a fraction of the fish, employed a fraction of the staff and saw a fraction of the visitors that today’s Birch can boast.

Then, in 1986, a $6 million donation from the Delaware-based Stephen and Mary Birch Foundation made it possible to replace the existing Scripps Aquarium — founded in 1951 — with the current larger facility on Expedition Way.

The mission of Birch Aquarium, Hilgarth said, is threefold: connect people to the ocean, teach people about the science research performed at Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) and contribute to ocean conservation. All three are equally important, and all three present unique challenges.

Interpreting science and presenting it in a way that is easily digestible for the layperson presents obvious challenges — especially when it comes to presenting that information in a way that children can understand but that still holds an adult’s attention — but one that Hilgarth feels the aquarium readily overcomes.

“We do really well interpreting and communicating science to the general public,” Hilgarth said. “That’s really the role of any zoo or aquarium or science museum. We have our classroom programs, and then we have our public programs. We do walks on [Scripps] pier and we’ve had so many different exhibits. We have an exhibit on climate change right now, and it’s told through the scientists researching it.”

Connecting people to the ocean and contributing to ocean conservation, meanwhile, present different challenges, and the two often go hand in hand. One of the greatest difficulties in protecting the ocean comes from the fact that many people don’t realize how their everyday behaviors contribute to the ocean’s degradation.

“One thing we’re trying to do is make people understand the need to protect our watersheds,” Hil-garth said. “Most people don’t realize that everything drains into the ocean, and their basic behavior impacts conservation efforts.”

Apart from illustrating the association between us and the ocean, Hilgarth said the aquarium tasks itself with educating the public on the various issues like overfishing, pollution, warming oceans and the danger to coral reefs. The aquarium’s work with other conservation programs also helps secure its place in the world of environmental stewardship. Birch, for example, has bred seahorses for years and sends the animals to more than 60 other institutions — aquariums, zoos and research facilities — so there is less of a need to take seahorses from the wild.

All of those challenges have to be addressed under the added pressure of the biggest one of all: money.

“The obvious challenge for a nonprofit is funding,” Hilgarth said. “And it’s affecting everyone, not just us. We have to figure out how to continue with the parts of our operation that are dear to us, like education in underserved communities, without charging way too much at gate. Another big challenge is that the ocean is facing so many challenges itself, and just trying to get the breadth and depth of that across to the public can be difficult.”

Hilgarth is herself celebrating a milestone anniversary. This year marks her 10th as executive director of the aquarium, and as Birch reflects on its history, she, too, reflected on her time there.

“I’ve loved every minute of it,” she said. “It’s been a time of growth and change, and we’ve seen a lot of new exhibits. I’m proud of being a part of making the aquarium more of an asset to the community and beyond, to Southern California in general. Our programs have had a lot of impact all over the region.”

The most impressive way the aquarium has managed to have such an impact is with its educational outreach.

Through formal and informal classes, Birch sees about 40,000 children walk through its doors every year, each one learning more about the ocean and its inhabitants and, hopefully, carrying that with them to the future. It also engages in professional development for science teachers, helping them improve how they impart know-ledge to their students and setting them up with resources they might not otherwise have.

It’s that educational component that sets Birch apart from many other aquariums.

Because of its connection to the university, it is intrinsically linked to the research and education happening at SIO, making it hard to compare it to other big aquariums like Monterey Bay.

As for the next 20 years, keep an eye out for more exciting exhibits and programs (Hilgarth mentioned a deep ocean exhibit, which may be in place in the next two or three years).

So what is Hilgarth’s favorite part about going to the office every day?

“I love our seadragons. Sometimes, just after closing, I’ll sneak in to just look at them,” she said. “Or I like to go and just watch the kelp forest. It’s very relaxing.”

Birch Aquarium will celebrate its 20th anniversary on Sept. 16 with a members-only reception from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Tide-Pool Plaza, complete with visits from staff and volunteers, a look back at the last 20 years in aquarium history and a sunset vista over the ocean the aquarium works so hard to protect.

For more information on Birch Aquarium or its programs, visit

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