Miranda Ko Cui’s fifteen years of saying “yes” at Birch Aquarium


Miranda Ko Cui has been saying “yes” at Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego for the last fifteen years, and she wouldn’t have it any other way. From her first days as a volunteer, to now serving on Birch Aquarium’s Advisory Board, she has dedicated her time to sharing her passion for ocean conservation and this beautiful coast with everyone around her. 

When asked about her first memory of the aquarium, Cui recounts a summer class at Scripps Oceanography. “When I first visited the aquarium, I was just amazed by how beautiful it was. I was inspired because it was an interpretation of [the research done at] Scripps Oceanography and by this incredible quality that goes into everything. I thought, this is the most beautiful place in the world, what do I need to do to stay around?”

After that visit, Cui became a volunteer at Birch Aquarium by following her heart: she decided to say “yes” as often as possible in order to keep coming back to the aquarium, to stay connected to the place that sparked such instant inspiration. That “saying yes” quality has led her into taking on many roles within the aquarium — from Docent to Kelp Forest Dive presenter to now holding a seat on Birch Aquarium’s Advisory Board. 

“One thing led to another and I found I could bring my industry perspective and experience to the Board. It means a lot because it’s a pivotal moment to be at the aquarium with everything the future holds.”

She speaks passionately about the sense of being grounded and of belonging when she’s at the aquarium, and how interconnected all the moving pieces, and the people, are to what the public sees. “People don’t realize that it takes everyone here, a whole team, to sustain things that we don’t see right at the surface. It’s not just the person who has an idea, like ‘We should have penguins here.’ It’s the people who design and build the exhibit, the people who care for the animals, the people who give talks, every single person who is involved. It takes everyone doing their part to make these amazing things happen.”

a bright blue and orange Mandarin Dragonet
The Mandarin Dragonet holds a special place in Cui's heart.

When asked about her favorite memory of the aquarium over the last decade and a half, her entire face lights up, and she admits there are too many to choose just one. She remembers baby animals, learning about conservation efforts and interactions with guests. For some time, she was also a Kelp Forest Dive presenter, and loved watching the animals interact with the divers in the Giant Kelp Forest

She recalls meeting the Little Blue Penguins when they arrived in 2022 with obvious fondness. “I loved meeting the penguins and how different they are all with their different personalities! I remember one was so vocal! I was trying to see other penguins and he wouldn’t let anyone past to see the other penguins!” 

One of her more personal stories involves her husband and their first visit to Birch Aquarium on an early date. “I love the Mandarin Dragonet. They’re known to be shy and elusive. When I was just starting to date my then-boyfriend, now-husband, we went to the aquarium and I told him I would only date him if the mandarin fish came out.” Recounting this story, Cui smiles at the memory. “When we got to that habitat, he stopped in front of it and just stayed there. He stayed probably thirty minutes! I think he would have stayed as long as it took, but finally the fish came out! So you can see Birch Aquarium is really so connected to my life and so many important milestones I’ve experienced.”

Miranda Ko Cui wears a blue Birch Aquarium shirt and is standing in front of the Giant Kelp Forest, looking into the exhibit (wide angle)
Cui looks up into the Giant Kelp Forest habitat.

All of these memories, at their core, embody that connection she has with the aquarium, and the sense of place it provides to her. “Through everything I’ve experienced, the aquarium has been my constant,” she says. “There have been times when I have tough periods, tough weeks or months, and I go in to volunteer. When I leave at the end of my shift I’m happy, it’s my happy place. I feel really lucky I’m able to have this place and this relationship and that I can maintain the connection.”

If she had to share one piece of advice about the importance of getting involved in volunteering? “I think my advice would be to get involved now, that we can’t afford to wait,” she says. “Where we are with the state of the planet, and with climate change, volunteers take on such a pivotal role. We can inspire change and action just through connecting with people, and have this cascade effect. We gain a lot ourselves, but we help inspire action in others.”

“Most importantly, get involved now because we owe it to our children and our children’s children to take action. It’s up to us to create a sustainable future for them by making changes now. I think about, what do I want to be able to tell my daughter when she grows up, or her children if she has them? I want her to have an answer when she asks herself, ‘what did mommy do for the ocean?’ So my advice? Get started now.”

Thank you to Miranda Ko Cui for taking the time to speak with us. Learn more about volunteering at Birch Aquarium on our website