Heal the Bay Blog

Category: Aquarium

Every year around Valentine’s Day, our Santa Monica Pier Aquarium celebrates its love for whales – just in time to mark the annual migration of the Pacific gray whale.

Pacific gray whales undergo a gargantuan 10,000-mile roundtrip journey between the Arctic and Mexico each year. These gentle giants breed and give birth in the warm Baja waters in late fall/early winter before heading back north with their calves around February. The migration takes the whales through the Santa Monica Bay – sometimes close enough to be spotted from the West end of the Pier.

A photo posted by Dale Frink (@dalefrink) on

Make sure to stop by for Whale of a Weekend at the Aquarium (Feb. 11 and 12, from 12:30 – 5 pm). From baleen to blubber, you’ll leave with a ton of knowledge. Be sure to take a peek through our binoculars from the observation deck; you might just spy a whale!

Our Top Ten Facts About Whales

  1. Whales only breathe through their blowholes – they can’t breathe through their mouths.
  2. There are two categories of cetaceans (whales): those with teeth and those without.
  3. Toothless whales, called baleen whales, include the Pacific gray whale, blue, humpback, fin, and right whales.
  4. Toothed whales include orcas, belugas, dolphins, narwhals, porpoises and sperm whales.
  5. Nearly 90% of all cetaceans are toothed whales.
  6. Baleen whales are the largest mammals on earth but they eat some of the smallest creatures in the ocean: tiny zooplankton.
  7. Baleen whales have two spout openings (like having two nostril openings).
  8. Toothed whales only have one spout opening.
  9. Narwhals actually only have two teeth. One of those teeth is the large spiral shaped ivory tusk that develops through their upper lip.
  10. When baleen whales blow air out of their spout, it creates a spray that sometimes comes out heart-shaped.

Don’t miss out on Whale of a Weekend for an ocean’s worth of fun, and don’t forget to celebrate World Whale Day on February 18!

summer camp in los angeles

Spring Break camp starts soon! Enroll today.

When school is out, camp is in. Whether it’s during spring break or summer vacation, our aquarium camp at the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium offers the perfect balance of fun and learning for your child in an environment that fosters interaction with 100 species of marine life.

Registration is now open for Spring Break and Summer camp sessions for youth from kindergarten through fifth grade, with sessions available April 10-14, and in June, July, and August 2017. Our space is limited and camp sessions can fill up quickly, so please enroll sooner than later to ensure your child gets a spot that works in your schedule.

Wondering what your child can expect at camp? Here are some of the fun activities young marine biologists can look forward to at our Santa Monica Pier Aquarium camp:

1. Interact with live animals.

Whether you’re having a staring contest with a wolf eel or getting a hug from a sea urchin, you’re sure to fall in love with the animals that call Santa Monica Bay home.

2. Explore the beach like a scientist.

Become a beach detective by looking for clues of life and living animals. The Santa Monica Beach is home to lots of cool critters and we regularly find sea birds, sand crabs, worms, striped shore crabs, and more.

3. Play awesome games.

It wouldn’t be camp without time to just run around and play in the sand, sea, and sunshine.

4. Let your creativity shine with arts & crafts.

Crayons, check. Glue, check. Scissors, check. Streamers, check. Put it all together and you get…an eviscerating sea star! Our ocean crafts are super fun and add the “A” for “Art” into STEAM education.

5. Excite your curiosity with hands-on science.

The minute our campers walk through our doors, they become scientists with us. From looking at plankton under the microscope, to running a test on water density, to dissecting a squid, our camps encourage scientific questioning and experimentation in a safe and educational environment.

6. Have fun with your friends – both new and old.

Whether you come to camp with your buddies, or meet new ones here, camp is always better when you have someone to share the experience.

7. Help protect your favorite animals by becoming an ocean steward.

Just like our Heal the Bay mission, our camp focuses on ways we can protect the ocean and its inhabitants. As we clean trash off of the beach and brainstorm ways to go green, our campers earn the right to call themselves Planet Protectors.

And here’s what some parents are saying about our camps:

“Amazing counselors, well-organized, enthusiastic children and overall excellent!”

“My daughter loved dissecting squid and all the beach activities. This is the second year she has gone to Santa Monica Aquarium Camp and it is her favorite camp of the summer. She loved her counselors and how exciting they all made marine science and ecology to her – she wants to be a marine biologist!”

“First day my son said, ‘I learned a new word, Bioluminescence’ to multiple people!”

So what are you waiting for? Let’s dive in!

Registration for Aquarium Camp is now open for both the Spring Break and Summer sessions. Please visit for more information and enroll today.

Heal the Bay, in association with, is hosting a unique pop-up event at the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium on Jan. 26. Here, the Aquarium’s outreach manager Randi Parent reveals a sneak peak of the evening’s exciting lineup.

What better setting for an evening entitled: “Life Aquatic – Ocean Dwellers + Storytellers,” than the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium?

On Thursday, January 26, in association with, Heal the Bay is hosting a lively, local group of storytellers ready to share unscripted tales inspired by their personal connections to the ocean. Musical improv and the Aquarium’s tanks teeming with marine life serve as the perfect accompaniment for this unique pop-up storytelling event.

Snag your event tickets while space is still available. All proceeds benefit Heal the Bay., which produces the pop-up storytelling event series has revealed part of the lineup for our event on Jan 26th, including the following speakers and musicians.

Sneak Peek: Lineup for “Life Aquatic – Ocean Dwellers + Storytellers”

Jeff Ho

Take a cultural trip back to Santa Monica’s “Dogtown” days with storyteller Jeff Ho, Santa Monica’s legendary surfboard manufacturer and creator of the Zephyr skate team.

Marion Clark

Join Marion Clark of Surf Academy and Surf Bus Foundation, as she takes us to the powerful waves of the North Shore to accept an unexpected invitation.

Gregory Bonann, Two Days After “The Rescue” In 1989.

Hear 47-year LA County Lifeguard and Baywatch co-creator Gregory Bonann’s story, as he takes us back to an unforgettable tour of local beaches, while he introduced the original team of Baywatch writers to the world of lifeguarding, and how he ended up earning the Medal of Valor.

Michelle Packman

Add a few more awesome storytellers and ace musicians – including cellist and LA/OC teacher Michelle Packman, singer and songwriter Kira Lingman, as well as Jim “Kimo” West, famous for his slack key guitar playing, and his 30 years playing with “Weird Al” Yankovic – and this will be an evening of eclectic, surprising, and inspiring experiences not to be missed.

Tickets are $20, with all proceeds going to Heal the Bay. Space is limited, so please RSVP in advance.

Giant Sea Bass, photo by Mike Couffer

Dec. 6, 2016 — A little love for a Giant Sea Bass pays huge dividends, writes Jose Bacallao, operations manager for our Santa Monica Pier Aquarium.

The Giant Sea Bass is a majestic fish. Lovingly known as the GSB, these California natives can reach a length of 7 feet, weigh up to 600 pounds, and live more than 70 years. Did I mention these animals are huge? They are like gigantic swimming mouths!

Unfortunately, these gentle giants were hunted to the brink of extinction last century. So the State of California imposed extremely strict regulations in the 1980s to save the species.

To help protect these wonders of the sea, our friend and colleague Mike Couffer asked Heal the Bay in 2015 to embark on a unique study – to track the spot patterns (the polka-dots) of a super tiny baby GSB over the course of one year. These spot patterns could be a way of identifying each individual, like a fingerprint, and would assist in research and conservation efforts along the coasts and islands of Southern California. Mike, an environmental consultant, is doing this research work in conjunction with Cal State Northridge.

Mike captured and delivered a 1.5-inch long baby Giant Sea Bass to the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium and placed it in our care. Caring for a little one is always a bit stressful, with many sleepless nights and an endless list of duties to keep the baby safe and healthy. It’s exhausting!

Each month, Mike would visit the Aquarium and photograph both sides of the fish, tracking and documenting changes in the fish’s spot pattern. Our Aquarist team would measure the fish’s length and weight every month — both for this study and other studies being undertaken in partnership with several institutions.

These were the most stressful days. We had to be gentle moving the little one from tank, to vessel, to weight scale, to measurement table, and then back to its tank. We did this work quietly, by hand, and with lots of love.

Well, as a proud papa, I can tell you our diligent care and feeding has paid off. Over the past year, our GSB has now grown to 7 inches in length and has gained about 100 times its weight. And what about those spot patterns? Do the spots on a Giant Sea Bass change or move over time? We’ll find out for sure once the study is published soon. It’s always a delight working with Mike and I look forward to more GSB studies with him and our colleagues at other facilities.

Now that the research is done, we can sit back and enjoy watching our GSB grow further. We expect to have the fish for a few more years, but like a young adult he’s going to have to move out of the house someday. Our tanks simply aren’t large enough to safely and comfortably house a full-grown GSB. But we’re not even thinking about that now!

So please come visit the Giant Sea Bass during the aquarium’s open hours. It’s an amazing animal. If you fall in love, you can even Aquadopt this special creature.

July 7, 2016 — Over the last ten months, citizen scientists of all ages helped our Santa Monica Pier Aquarium survey the humble Pacific Mole Crab (commonly known as the sand crab). More than 60 volunteers collected an immense amount of data about these sand crabs on the beach just outside the Aquarium’s doors – what did they learn?

Last year the Aquarium partnered with the Long-term Monitoring Program and Experiential Training for Students (LiMPETS). This statewide program activates people along the entire California coast to do real science through hands-on data collection – at the Santa Monica Pier we focused entirely on sand crabs, an indicator species useful for measuring the health of the entire ecosystem. We observed how rainfall, water temperature and tides affected the size, sex and abundance of sand crabs.

After consistently collecting data for almost a year we are beginning to see some trends. What is most exciting is the sheer number of sand crabs we’ve been seeing lately. In the winter, if we found two sand crabs we knew it was a good day. Now we’re consistently finding 15-25! What’s behind this drastic change?

Plotting average abundance of sand crabs over timeThe answer has to do with the sand crab’s life cycle. Adult sand crabs have a mating season between November and February. Their eggs develop for 30 days, before hatching into planktonic larvae. These larvae float around in the ocean for a little over four months and go through six different life stages (which ensures that they become widely dispersed and colonize new areas)! They eventually settle onto shore as juveniles, or “recruits,” and about a month later become fully grown adults. This explains why we are currently finding so many sand crabs, especially many of the recruits that were laid in the early months of mating season, drifted as plankton for months, and have now made the Santa Monica beach their home. As they continue to feed and grow, they will soon start the process all over again.

So if you joined on a sand crab survey trek in the winter, be sure to come back and help us find, count, and measure all of the sand crabs we have been finding on the Santa Monica beach!

Taylor Spesak, Public Programs AssistantTaylor Spesak is the Aquarium’s public programs educator. Join him every Wednesday at 3pm for sand crab monitoring. The program is included with Aquarium admission.


Mar. 22, 2016 — Inspiring, family-friendly, free educational fun. Good luck finding such a combination, right? Anyone who stopped by S.T.E.A.M. Machines at the Santa Monica Pier on March 12th found all that and more.

Start with teams of motivated students who designed, built, and operated innovative, complex contraptions that completed a series of whimsical steps to open an umbrella. Add prize money and an opportunity to take the winning contraption to a national competition and you have hundreds of students in varying degrees of excitement, panic, and determination to show off their original machines before a panel of expert judges. This was the third annual L.A. regional Rube Goldberg Machines contest, part of a day-long expo connecting the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, arts and math to the real world needs of solving today’s environmental issues.

Heal the Bay’s Santa Monica Pier Aquarium curated this event for the third year in collaboration with the Santa Monica Pier Corporation and sponsors iHeartMedia and Time Warner Cable’s Connect a Million Minds. The contest was the centerpiece of a day that included interactive booths showcasing everything from 3-D printing, robotics, an all-electric Volkswagen (converted from a gas combustion engine by Santa Monica High School students), turn-trash-into-art stations, and fresh-churned ice cream–created by bicycle pedal power.

The fun was not limited to the expo on the Pier deck; below at beach level our Aquarium gave visitors the opportunity to pilot our new mini underwater R.O.V. (remotely operated vehicle) and tinker with robotics and circuitry.

Master of Ceremonies for the day was Gray Bright, engineer by day, comedic talk show host by night. Between witticisms delivered in his Australian accent and his sense of wonderment at all the amazing gadgets and gizmos demonstrated, he put his talk show host skills to work, interviewing a series of powerhouse science and technology experts. All available seats were taken to hear about the career paths of Diana Skaar, Head of Business Innovation for X (formerly Google X); Kristina Kipp from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab’s Mars Rover program; Loretta Whitesides, an astrobiologist, founder astronaut and consultant at Virgin Galactic; and 18-yr-old L.A. robotics champ Cynthia Erenas.

S.T.E.A.M. Machines was a huge success, or as Santa Monica Pier Executive Director Jay Farrand said afterward: “Our success was written across the faces of all the happy students, families, and spectators that enjoyed the Pier in a new way on Saturday.”

Don’t miss it next year!

S.T.E.A.M. Machines on the Pier

S.T.E.A.M. Machines on the Pier S.T.E.A.M. Machines on the Pier S.T.E.A.M. Machines on the Pier
S.T.E.A.M. Machines on the Pier S.T.E.A.M. Machines on the Pier S.T.E.A.M. Machines on the Pier
S.T.E.A.M. Machines on the Pier S.T.E.A.M. Machines on the Pier S.T.E.A.M. Machines on the Pier

Feb. 28, 2016 — At approximately 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 23, Gordon Honda, a Santa Monica Pier Aquarium volunteer for 16 years, hit a milestone no other volunteer at the Aquarium has ever attained.

He reached his 5,000th hour of volunteering!

He was celebrated with cupcakes and a round of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” by the staff. “Gordon has given so many hours of his time over 16 years that we have to continue to create new volunteer awards just to keep up,” said programs manager Jenna Segal.  Based on hours logged, Aquarium volunteers earn marine-themed pins to add to their nametags. Gordon’s nametag is weighted down with so much hardware you’d think he was a five star general; his 5,000th hour was commemorated with a bright orange Garibaldi pin to add to collection. This feisty fish is the California State Marine Fish, and its significance represents how important Gordon is to the Aquarium team. “Gordon represents everything we look for in a volunteer, and brings joy to our visitors every week,” Jenna said.

When Gordon was honored with Heal the Bay’s Jean Howell award in 2013, the staff compared him to a Swiss army knife: all-purpose, always dependable, always ready to take up any task.

Congratulations Gordon!

Santa Monica Pier Aquarium

Wanna be like Gordon? Submit an Aquarium volunteer application here.

January 19, 2016 — Aquarium Outreach Manager Randi Parent can’t hide her soft spot for her newest officemate: Our baby giant black sea bass!

“Baby giant” seems like a contradiction in terms, but when it comes to the latest fish on exhibit at our Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, it is accurate. Under a year old and just shy of two inches long, our giant black sea bass, Stereolepis gigas, has a long way to go to live up to its name. But when it reaches maturity at between 13-15 years of age, this critically endangered species can reach seven feet in length and weigh upward of 500 pounds. It’s hard to equate this tiny, brownish-orange fish with oversized fins and dark spots with the much darker gentle giants (one diver’s blog refers to them as “aquatic Volkswagens”) that hang out in groups around kelp beds just off the coast, but they really are the same species.

Giant black sea bass are also described as so chill a diver can hand feed them – a trait that meant they were nearly fished to extinction by the late 1970’s. In 1982 the sport fishing of these big lugs was banned and a few years later gill netting of the species was also outlawed. Now, marine biologists are working to determine the success of these protections, and our Aquarium’s baby giant black sea bass is part of this unfolding story of wildlife conservation.

When researchers from Cal State Northridge and the Monterey Bay Aquarium approached senior aquarist José Bacallao about holding on to one of a handful of babies collected recently along the Southern California coast, he jumped at the chance. It turned out the researchers were “tipped off” by biologist and photographer Michael Couffer, who made an unannounced, stealth visit to the Aquarium the previous week to determine whether we were baby giant sea bass-worthy.  And naturally, we were!

Couffer will return each month to chronicle the fish’s growth, also recording any changes in its color scheme–paying particular attention to its dark spots. Are they unique markers? Can these spots be used to identify a particular giant sea bass throughout its life? The goal is to record a full life history of these giant fish and show the importance of conservation in preserving the species. Couffer can discuss at length the spawning habits of the adults, coloration changes and behavior of the juveniles along the sandy bottom in the most scientific terms. But even a seasoned biologist had to resort to an unscientific, one-word description of our newest fish: cute.

You can visit this adorable fish at the Aquarium Tuesday-Friday from 2-5pm, and weekends from 12:30-5. Count its spots and watch for updates!

From this… To this!
Baby giant black sea bass by Michael Couffer Giant black sea bass


December 17, 2015 —  Sleigh bells ring…holiday tunes play…everyone wants to sell you peppermint bark…is it really snowing on that corner of Santa Monica Boulevard?

Our Santa Monica Pier Aquarium has the perfect antidote for the holidaze: A break with the marine life at the Aquarium. (Gazing at fish is a soothing experience, trust us!) We’ve got special holiday hours the last two weeks of 2015. You can drop by Dec. 22-24, between 2 and 5 p.m. We’ll all take a holiday on Dec. 25, but from Dec. 26-31, you and out-of-town guests can visit us from 12:30-5 p.m. We’ll wish all a Happy New Year on the 31st, remain closed New Year’s Day, and reopen with our regular winter schedule beginning at 12:30 p.m. Jan. 2.

  • Special Holiday Hours! 
    Closed Dec. 25
    Open Dec. 26 through Dec. 31 from 12:30 – 5:00 pm
    Closed Jan 1, 2016

A visit to the Aquarium can also solve the problem of what to get for the hard-to-buy for folks on your list. Consider making a donation to Heal the Bay in a special someone’s name or give the unique gift of Aquadoption, the program that underwrites the daily care of our marine life along with a yearlong membership to Heal the Bay, which includes free family admission to the Aquarium to visit your adopted animal for the full year.

For a limited time during the holiday season, the Aquarium is offering its round stingrays for adoption. And for a special holiday price, a plush stuffed animal stingray (incredibly cuddly, no sharp stinger on this cutie) is included in the adoption package. Four other animals exhibited at the Aquarium are available for “aquadoption” year-round; the stingray will only be featured for the month of December.

Arrange an Aquadoption by registering online, during a visit to the Aquarium at 1600 Ocean Front Walk, beach level, beneath the Carousel building, or by calling 310-393-6149, ext. 114 for more information.

From all the folks and the fishes at the Aquarium, Happy Holidays!

Aquadoption at the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium

Nov. 19, 2015 — This blog was written by Taylor Spesak, Public Programs Intern, and Catherine Hoffman, Programs Coordinator, at our Santa Monica Pier Aquarium.

Beneath your toes at the beach are thousands of sand crabs just trying to make it through the day. Most beachgoers walk right over them without a care, but Santa Monica Pier Aquarium citizen scientists are eager to find them!

Heal the Bay recently partnered with the statewide LiMPETS program to bring sand crab monitoring to the Santa Monica shoreline just outside the Aquarium’s doors. This program activates people along the entire California coast to do real science through hands-on data collection.

But…why do we care about sand crabs? For starters, they can tell scientists a lot about the sandy beach ecosystem. For example, if there is a low number of crabs during a collection, water quality may be poor or a high number of predators may be snacking on the sand crabs. The list could go on and on. By simply counting these overlooked creatures, scientists can make conclusions about the entire ecosystem’s overall health.

Citizen scientists from the Aquarium are focusing on sand crabs specifically in the area around the Santa Monica Pier. We’re examining several factors that may be affecting the number of crabs present, like how long it’s been since a heavy rain and whether the sample spot is under the Pier. We’ve already noticed that there seem to be more crabs during dry spells and more crabs directly under the Pier.

The findings are intriguing, and we look forward to analyzing more data. That’s where you come in!

Experienced or not, anyone can be a citizen scientist, and we’d love to do science with you. As long as the tides are low, the surf isn’t too aggressive, and there is no rain we will be out collecting data every Wednesday at 3:00pm. No training required! Meet us at the Aquarium and we’ll then head down to the beach to collect our sand crabs. This program can also be used as a service or linked learning opportunity for middle and high school students. An AP Environmental Studies class from Los Angeles Academy of Arts and Enterprise has already helped us collect great data.

So come get crabby with us on Wednesday, November 25, at 3pm and kick off your citizen science career under the Pier!

For more information, please email Catherine Hoffman at

Blogger Catherine hunting for Sand Crabs                                                                            Catherine and Laz hunting for sand crabs