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“How to Guide” in Exploring the New California Academy of Sciences

Updated on September 29, 2014

African Hall

Inside the African Hall at the California Academy of Sciences
Inside the African Hall at the California Academy of Sciences | Source
Giant Sea Bass at the Steinhart Aquarium
Giant Sea Bass at the Steinhart Aquarium | Source

Visiting Hints and Advice

The new California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park is an engineering and environmental marvel. To make the best use of time in exploring the new Academy and aquarium, one should know the building’s features and exhibits.

Go to the California Academy of Science’s website for the floor plan and schedule of daily events:

This website also contains a wealth of short videos, blogs, photos, exclusive webcams, and news not found in the Academy building itself. And best of all, the information on this website is free.

The New California Academy of Sciences and Steinhart Aquarium is smaller than its seismically-unsafe predecessor as the new Academy has been totally rebuilt from the ground up to house work spaces for staff that are off-limits to the public. The old Academy used to house its staff in the windowless basement. The new building now has staff working on the south side of the three-story windowed building.

The ground floor has a fully enclosed Rainforest Sphere with spiraling upward ramps to allow visitors to walk alongside live foliage and see butterflies, an ant farm, small frogs, fish, and at the bottom of the sphere, an enclosed lake stocked with Amazonian-native fish. Cages and cases placed at ramp landings contain a variety of insects, reptiles, lizards, and small snakes.

A digital Morrison Planetarium Sphere, hailed as one of the largest in the continent, comes with stadium seating and six surround digital projectors.

A (gourmet) cafeteria serves up a variety of fresh dishes ranging from salads and soups to Mexican, Chinese, and deli sandwiches. Visitors can sit inside or in an enclosed outdoor space. A long fish tank in a wall allows patrons to watch fish swim by as they eat.

By the Morrison Planetarium and lobby, there is a small shark and stingray tank that could only be viewed from the top of the tank. This also allows visitors to watch the sharks and rays being fed from overhead.

There is a central glass atrium (lobby) for special exhibits. The atrium has an overhead metal scaffold that allows for the hanging of fossils, photos, and other objects related to the special exhibit.

The African Hall has large windowed rooms holding Taxidermy-stuffed African herd mammals and a few live lizards. At one end of the hall is the live penguin exhibit tank, much larger than the original penguin tank.

Two gift shops, a Children’s Exploration Center with play and activity area, a working lab with a glass wall to allow visitors to see the scientists go about their work, an alligator swamp reminiscent of the swamp in the old Academy of Sciences, and Earth’s Rotation Motion Pendulum complete the ground floor exhibits.

The upper levels house a Naturalist and Media Resources library that allows visitors to select and borrow nature videos, books, and magazines. Taxidermy-stuffed birds and small mammals are found in glass display cases along with microscopes showing various samples underneath their lenses. There is also a hallway and room for special exhibits and a 3D theater with stadium seating to show short nature films.

The living garden roof has two mounds to symbolize the hills of San Francisco. The garden has a variety of flowers, strawberries, native vegetation and shrubs, but no trees.

The Steinhart Aquarium is a brand-new aquarium nestled in the basement. It has the deepest living coral reef tank to date with a variety of Clown Fish, tangs, sea anemones, and colored tropical saltwater fish all swimming alongside rock corral. The Pacific Coast tank is the other largest tank within the aquarium and has Rockfish, starfish, sharks, groupers, seaweed, tunas, and rocks.

At the back wall, there is a touchpool with an attending staff person. Visitors could handle starfish, sea urchins, kelp, clams, and other live animals in the touch tanks.

The Giant Sea Bass now has a tank much larger than the original cramped tank. The Sea Bass sometimes shares the tank with a couple of long Moray Eels.

The Pacific octopus now has a larger tank which it shares with a group of fish.

A Moray Eel tank showcases the eels nestled within their rock caves.

A clear acrylic tunnel through the Amazon Rainforest lake with benches running the length of the tunnel. This tunnel splits the Amazon Rainforest tank in two and one can see large catfish, gars, and other Amazonian-native fish swim back and forth overhead between the tanks.

There is a Stingray tank, a jellyfish tank, a giant python tank with water and tree roots, a clear acrylic Alligator Gar tank, and smaller tanks for display of various sea life with low-height windows to allow small children to see inside. The hallway has a small gift shop.

Since the new California Academy of Sciences building is smaller than its former predecessor (the new building gave 2.5 acres of land back to the park), visitors will note that these old exhibits are no longer present.

The Fish Roundabout is gone (so are the fish such as the large tuna and sharks). The public Rock and Gem Collection Hall is gone, but some rocks and gems remain in the “Behind the Scenes” paid tour. The Dolphin and seal tanks, the Dinosaur Wing (and fossils/dinosaur models), the preserved "Butterfly Wall" and insect room are also gone. The Reptile hallway (behind the Alligator swamp in the old Academy), the Astronomy Room, (next to the Planetarium in the old Academy), the Human Species Room with its wax figures and mannequins, and the Comic Hall no longer exist at the new Academy of Sciences.

Morrison Planetarium

Morrison Planetarium's dome, one of the largest digital projector Planetariums in the nation.
Morrison Planetarium's dome, one of the largest digital projector Planetariums in the nation. | Source

Coral Reef Tank

Coral Reef Tank, the deepest coral reef tank in the world, inside the Steinhart Aquarium.
Coral Reef Tank, the deepest coral reef tank in the world, inside the Steinhart Aquarium. | Source

Pacific Coast Tank

Pacific Coast Tank, the other largest tank, inside the Steinhart Aquarium.
Pacific Coast Tank, the other largest tank, inside the Steinhart Aquarium. | Source

Rainforest Dome

The Amazon Pond inside the glass Rainforest Dome.
The Amazon Pond inside the glass Rainforest Dome. | Source
A butterfly inside the Rainforest Dome.
A butterfly inside the Rainforest Dome. | Source
A snake on display at the California Academy of Sciences.
A snake on display at the California Academy of Sciences. | Source


The specimen touchpool at the Steinhart Aquarium.
The specimen touchpool at the Steinhart Aquarium. | Source


The saltwater tidepool at the California Academy of Sciences.
The saltwater tidepool at the California Academy of Sciences. | Source

Naturalist and Media Center

The California Academy of Science's Naturalist and Media Center library allows visitors to check out books, videos, and magazines on science, technology, and nature.
The California Academy of Science's Naturalist and Media Center library allows visitors to check out books, videos, and magazines on science, technology, and nature. | Source

Tips and Advice when visiting the new California Academy of Sciences:

The size of the attending crowd often depends on the time and day of the visit. Weekends are usually more crowded than weekdays and Special Events such as the DJ Parties on Thursday evenings bring more young single people than mothers and children during the weekday hours.

Cameras are welcome inside the California Academy of Sciences.

Note that one could not visit the Academy of Sciences or the Aquarium during evening lectures because those areas are roped off. A lecture ticket would only allow access to the Planetarium or the room of the lecture.

When visiting the new Academy, try to attend the Live-event and theater shows and exhibits that have a set schedule because missing them would mean an hour’s wait or having to come back another time.

Scheduled shows: The Planetarium and 3D theater often show films at the top-of-the-hour or every half hour, which could be another hour’s wait if you miss a show. As such, when first entering, go to these theaters and note the time for the next showing. The Planetarium usually hands out tickets in advance for the next show so obtain a ticket for your party and then visit the rest of the Academy until one of the shows start. Many visitors often say that these digital presentations make the price of admission worth it so be sure not to miss them.

The line for Planetarium/theater entry forms about 10-15 minutes before the shows starts and the shows often start five to ten minutes past the hour. As such, one could still make the showing if a little bit late or until the doors are finally closed. Sit towards the middle or rear of the Planetarium because the images get projected in a 180-degree sphere. Sitting towards the front means having to look over one’s shoulder to see the rest of the picture projected behind. Do look around when viewing the Planetarium show since the video projection is 180-degrees around. The 3D theater has viewers use wearable and reusable 3D glasses.

Live-Event: Coral Reef Dives occur at 10:30 and 2:30 P.M. daily. A diver goes into the Coral Reef Tank to clean and also answer questions from the audience.

Live-Event: The Penguin Feeding happens twice a day at 10:30 A.M. and 3 P.M. in the African Hall. Showing up early at the Penguin tank ensures a good spot as there are no seats in front of the tank window.

The Rainforest Sphere usually takes about an hour to explore because the only exit is through the basement aquarium. (Visitors start at the bottom, walk to the top of the sphere, and then descend via an elevator to the basement). There is a line to enter the Rainforest Sphere as a staff attendant only allows a select number of visitors into the sphere at one time. If the next 3D theater or Planetarium showing starts in under half an hour, do not enter the Rainforest Sphere because there will be not be enough time to see all the exhibits inside. Usually there is a line to enter the Rainforest Sphere and to reenter the Rainforest means standing in line again, walking all the way to the top, and exiting at the aquarium again. One could enter and exit the Rainforest exhibit as many times as one desires, but remember, traffic flows in one direction and always exits into the basement aquarium.

Being an enclosed Rainforest, inside the sphere gets very warm while the Rooftop garden could be chilly. Therefore, dress in layers.

The Rainforest levels have cages and tanks located at the corners of the landings. These tanks showcase a variety of insects, fish, and reptiles. Small frogs, birds, butterflies, and insects often rest on the trees along the walkway.

When visiting the Aquarium, start from the furthest area (the Python tank by the Rainforest elevator exit) and then wind your way back to the Coral Reef tank. That way when you’re finished seeing everything at the aquarium, the elevators and staircase are nearby to exit.

Each small Aquarium fish tank usually houses an animal, but some of the animals may be very small. Look around the leaves and deep inside the tank to see the fish or insect being represented as sometimes the animal may be hiding or smaller than one first thought.

Usually, the Aquarium has more fish to display but keeps them behind closed doors for various reasons. Small or medium tank inhabitants and exhibits do change while the large tanks contain the same inhabitants throughout. Some changes to the Aquarium over time include the introduction of kelp seaweed in the larger tanks, changing of the small tank inhabitants, the seahorse displays, introduction of a smaller fish to the larger tank exhibits, adding more clams and starfish to the Pacific Coast tank, and the introduction of more coral and sea anemones after each tank cleaning.

If possible, use the stairs because the elevators often get crowded with baby strollers and children, especially on weekends.

Pick up a free Academy of Sciences newsletter brochure at the Information Desk. The newsletter brochure details the daily, weekly, and monthly Academy and Aquarium events, theater presentations and lectures, their show times, their additional costs (if any), and their event locations.

There are one or two public restrooms on every floor of the Academy of Sciences and the restrooms are not that large. As such, if one restroom gets crowded, ascend or descend a flight of stairs to the restroom on the next level. Usually when a theater empties, people use the restrooms closest to the theater so it pays to use a restroom on the level where the crowd isn’t present.

The California Academy of Sciences’ cafeteria serves gourmet food, but if the prices are too steep or the cafeteria too crowded, then eat at De Young Museum’s cafe across from the park’s central quad. The De Young Museum’s cafeteria has servers to bring food to covered indoor tables and chairs. Not only is the De Young’s cafeteria food usually better, cheaper, and larger portions, the café is often less crowded than the Academy cafeteria. One could enter De Young’s cafe directly from the cafe patio on the side of the museum without having to pay De Young's admission (there's a baggage security check though). Be sure to hang onto your Academy ticket and get your hand stamped when you leave the Academy of Sciences so that you could reenter later. Academy visitors say that the Academy allows outside food and drink also.

The main gift shop by the entrance houses Lemondrop, the world’s longest python. Be sure to check out this live yellow-skinned snake before you exit the Academy.

Note that some back wall paintings of the African Hall have moving animations. Looking up at the ceiling on some exhibits reveals a mounted movie projector. Follow the lens aim of the projector onto the wall to see the animated video.

The Naturalist and Media Center on the second floor contains fossils, books, videos, samples, skulls, and Taxidermy-stuffed birds, reptiles, and mammals on display. Visiting here and browsing the glass cabinets compares to visiting a mini-museum. Similar to a library, visitors could borrow instructional and documentary videos on animals, nature, science, and the planet. These videos were produced by PBS, NOVA, National Geographic, Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, History Channel, and the Travel Channel to name a few.

Don’t miss the Special Exhibits as these are often shown for a limited time only.

Claude, the swamp’s albino alligator, no longer has a companion because the green alligator that used to be his swampmate bite off Claude’s small toe, resulting in the green alligator’s deportation. As such, Claude now lives alone and has the heated rock in the center of the swamp all to himself. One could view Claude from overhead on the ground floor, and from the side via the Aquarium basement tank window.

Academy of Science members receive a discount when they shop at the Gift Shops. Yearly Individual membership allows entry of the cardholder and one additional guest and Family Membership allows entry for the family and additional guests. Membership is an economical way of visiting the museum, provides added bonuses and benefits, and also eliminates having to stand in line for tickets.

“Behind the Scenes Tours” allow extra-paying visitors ($19.95 for members and $24.95 for non-members) to go behind closed doors and see firsthand some equipment, collections, exhibits, and displays not shown to the public. Some highlights include the gem and rock collection, the laboratories scientists work in, the aquarium filtration system and food preparation room, and getting to see various specimens and samples. Speak with the staff at the Information Desk for how to purchase “Behind the Scenes Tour” tickets.

Various scientists and staff are present each day to answer questions, explain samples, educate with presentations, and guide visitors through the exhibits.

The Academy has weekly and monthly lectures and Special Events such as DJ nights on Thursdays, Dean’s Lectures at the Planetarium, and Pajama and sleepover parties. These events require paying for Special Event tickets in advance.

These tips and advice should help in making a visit to the California Academy of Sciences and the Steinhart Aquarium a more fun, efficient, memorable and enjoyable experience.

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