The Ellen Browning Scripps Memorial Research Pier


For more than a century, generations of families have discovered the ocean world through exhibits and educational programs of the aquarium-museum associated with

Scripps's fascinating history. From modest displays at the turn of the century to magnificent habitats in the present, the role of an aquarium-museum in Scripps Oceanography's legacy is important. Today, more than 400,000 people visit Birch Aquarium at Scripps each year.

An Aquarium Since 1903

The Marine Biological Association of San Diego was established in 1903 to conduct marine research in the local waters of the Pacific Ocean. Its name was later changed to Scripps Institution of Oceanography to honor supporters Ellen Browning Scripps and E.W. Scripps, part of the Scripps family of newspaper pioneers. The founders felt a deep commitment to communicating scientific findings to the general public. They required the institution to build and maintain a public aquarium and museum to communicate discoveries to the world.

A Smart Purchase

The researchers had outgrown their modest laboratory in the boathouse of the Hotel del Coronado and moved to a small laboratory at La Jolla Cove in 1905. A few shelves with marine specimens were set aside for visitors to enjoy.

Several years later, the association purchased 174 acres of pristine property at La Jolla Shores for $1,000 at a public auction from the city of San Diego. The first permanent building at the new site -- designed by Architect Irving Gill --

was constructed in 1910. The aquarium was on the first floor and the museum was in an upstairs lecture hall. Today, this building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

First Aquarium Building in 1915

In 1915, the first building devoted solely to an aquarium was built on the Scripps campus. The small, wooden structure contained 19 tanks ranging in size from 96 to 228 gallons. The museum was located in a nearby building. The institution's name changed to Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 1925 to recognize the growing faculty's widened range of studies. Plans for a new aquarium were delayed until after World War II.


After the War

The Scripps Aquarium-Museum opened in 1951 and named to honor former institution director T. Wayland Vaughan. The three-story facility served the institution for more than 40 years as Scripps Institution's window to the ocean world. A ring of 18 tanks --  the largest at 2,000 gallons -- surrounded a central museum of glass exhibit cases displaying Scripps research projects. Within a month of its opening, visitors from all 48 states had signed the guest book.

Growing up

The aquarium-museum expanded in several ways between 1965 and 1992: 

  • 1965 -- the aquarium-museum begins to showcase sea life in their naturalistic habitats
  • 1966 -- the first docent program begins, allowing school children to visit the facility for tours
  • 1976 -- a snorkeling excursion in the Gulf of California is held to expand education beyond the facility
  • 1979 -- the Friends of the Aquarium membership program begins
  • 1985 -- the Stephen and Mary Birch Foundation donates $6 million to a fund-raising effort for a new aquarium
  • 1992 -- Birch Aquarium at Scripps, the current facility, opens

Birch Aquarium at Scripps Today

Birch Aquarium at Scripps is designed around a central lobby with entrances to main interpretive areas:

  • Hall of Fishes with more than 60 tanks of Pacific fishes and invertebrates; the largest habitat is 70,000 gallons
  • Scripps Explorers Gallery, featuring cutting-edge discoveries of Scripps explorers in climate, earth, and ocean sciences through interactive exhibits
  • Preuss Tidepool Plaza, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, with living tide pools for discovery
  • Smargon Courtyard, also overlooking coastal bluffs, features a 13,000-gallon shark reef tank and Wonders of Water play stations. Seasonal events take place here during the year.

  Four times the size of its predecessor, Birch Aquarium at Scripps is a physical reflection of the aquarium's expanded mission. The hilltop site provides a spectacular overview of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography campus and the Pacific Ocean.

Birch Aquarium at Scripps is also an "aquarium without walls"  where visitors can enjoy strong exhibit and education programs based on the foundation of scientific expertise at the research institution. The aquarium disseminates these programs to the nation at large through publications, curricula, multi-media presentations, traveling exhibits, educational products, outreach programs, and teacher training designed to stimulate curiosity and critical thinking about the natural world, and help achieve its education mission. For an archive of pictures of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, please visit the SIO Archives