Visit the California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco!

The California Academy of Sciences is a breathtaking adventure of a museum. Living creatures like fish, alligators, and penguins catch the attention of every visitor. Traditional exhibits and film exhibits are everywhere. Collections of books and specimens fill entire rooms and surround you with knowledge. You can even “travel” to the Amazon Rainforest. Here is my visit to the Academy, what it taught me about science, and what to plan for your own visit!

Cownose rays swim around in circles together on the first floor of the museum.
Cownose rays swim around in circles together on the first floor of the museum.


The Academy is very much alive! Some of the exhibits are actually like zoo exhibits, with real living creatures to observe and admire. Ocean exhibits housed corals, starfish, small sharks, and the sting rays shown at right.

Another swampland exhibit is home to Claude the albino alligator, whose white scales are a rare sight in the wild. Albino means that the alligator has a genetic defect that prevents them from producing the skin pigment melanin when they are born. As a result, the skin and scales are white instead of pigmented. If Claude did not live at the Academy, and instead lived in the wild, his white scales would make him stand out against the swampy surroundings. Losing his camouflage, he probably would not be a successful hunter. Luckily he lives at the Academy for us to learn from and admire.

At another live exhibit, penguins enjoy their fishy lunch in front of dozens of spectators. The penguin handler feeds the penguins while wading waist-deep in their swimming pool. From behind the glass, she wears a headset and answers the visitors’ questions with a microphone. Why are there two types of fish for food, and does it matter which one the penguins eat? (Penguins can choose either fish to eat, but they have preferences when it comes to food, just like humans.) Do penguins mate for life? (They do, and they are also monogamous.) Are these wild penguins? (No, they are bred in captivity.) Meanwhile the adorable penguins splash around, having fun and showing off.

Ecosystems & Biodiversity

The most magical exhibit is the miniature rainforest. It is a climate-controlled “room” three stories high and filled with rainforest plants and animals. Upon entering we felt a wave of heat and humidity. Trees towered above us, and butterflies flitted about our heads. A pool of freshwater river fish swam below. I took as many pictures as I could, trying to capture every part of the rainforest. It was like being teleported into the middle of the Amazon.

A spiral walkway allowed us to climb higher into the different layers of the rainforest. Each rainforest has four layers: forest floor, understory, canopy, and emergent layer (treetops). On the lower walkway, we could see the forest floor and understory layers. This is where fish, birds, and even some spiders made their home. It can be very dark in these layers, because the trees block most of the sunlight. As we walked to the top of the rainforest, we saw the canopy and the treetops. Frogs and snakes usually live in these layers. The blue morhpo butterflies flew around in all the layers, much to my delight!


I visited the Academy’s planetarium, where they showed a self-produced documentary about earthquakes. I imagine this exhibit hit home for a lot of local visitors. In 1906, San Francisco suffered one of the most devastating earthquakes in history, and it took a long time for the city to recover from the destruction. The documentary explained (with excellent graphics!) how earthquakes are caused. On the coast of California, the cause is the San Andreas Fault, where two pieces of the Earth’s crust rub up against each other and release energy in the form of earthquakes.

The entire roof of the museum acts as a home for plants and shrubs. This helps to regulate the temperature of the building and the surroundings as well.
The entire roof of the museum acts as a home for plants and shrubs. This helps to regulate the temperature of the building and the surroundings as well.

Living Roofs

I thought I’d share this pretty picture of the Academy’s Living Roof. By growing plants on the roof of this building, the heat from all the people and machines inside is allowed to escape upward. Traditional building roofs don’t allow heat to escape very well, so a living roof reduces the need for air conditioning inside, saving lots of electricity. The plants also take in the water when it rains, so less water turns to runoff in the streets. The portholes let in natural light for the museum exhibits, which is especially important for the rainforest room. And plants are better for the environment, producing oxygen that we need to breathe and cleaning the city air. Living roofs are not a new invention, but it’s exciting to see them in use in modern architecture.

Planning Your Visit – Tips and Advice

  • Check out the Academy’s website before you visit, and take notes on your favorite exhibits. There might also be special events that catch your eye.
  • If you plan to visit on a weekend, expect it to be very, very busy with tourists and families! I wish I had visited during the week, because I would have had more time to stay with each exhibit and not have to rush around.
  • Secret discovery #1: the Naturalist Center on the third floor is a great place to relax away from the hustle and bustle of the museum. All the walls are lined with books for kids and adults to read about nature, science, and history. You can play with fossil specimens that are lying around as well. It’s like a playroom for nerds!
  • Secret discovery #2: Lemon Drop the albino snake lives in a glass tank in the gift shop; go visit him!
  • And of course, all the exhibits I wrote about here come highly recommended.
  • Go enjoy science!

Photographs taken by Madison and Hayley Hansen, California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco, 01/11/2013.