The California Academy of Sciences is located in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and features many live animal exhibits. It is a very fine museum that mostly focuses on natural history and biological sciences, although not exclusively, and is a very active research institution. It has a long history; it was formed in 1853 and its first public building opened in 1874 in downtown, then moved to another downtown location in 1891. After that building was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, it finally moved into a new home in 1916 in Golden Gate Park, its present site. The museum expanded with many new additions over the years up to 1976; it remained an architecturally piecemeal complex until it was torn down in 2005 (except for one historic wall). It moved to a temporary downtown location during a 3-year construction period, then back to the present site in 2008 with the opening of the much-admired new building. It is located in the most formal part of the park, on one side of the Music Concourse; on the other side is the de Young Museum, another striking new building that opened in 2005 and focuses on art. Nearby are other park attractions, including the Japanese Tea Garden (the fortune cookie was reportedly invented there), the Strybing Arboretum, and the National AIDS Memorial Grove. The Academy is composed of many features under one roof; the major components are the Morrison Planetarium, the Kimball Natural History Museum, the Osher Rainforest, and the Steinhart Aquarium. Other components of the facility include the Piazza (a central courtyard), 3 gift stores, a café, a formal restaurant called The Moss Room, a special exhibits gallery, a children’s activity room, the Project Lab (where scientists document specimens in public view), the Naturalist Center (a library and classroom), offices and labs and collection storage out of public view, and 2 fenced gardens that face the surrounding park. Perhaps the most unique feature is the Observation Deck on the roof; in addition to nice views of the park, it gives a closer view of the 2.5 acre Living Roof that covers the entire building. It is planted with low-growing California native plants and is a major component of the new building’s major ‘green’ designation; the building achieved LEED Platinum status (the highest status) and won the Urban Land Institute’s award that year. The roof is also the building’s major design statement: the bulbous plant-covered forms that rise from its flat surface are memorable and the two largest ones actually cover the tops of the two large domes that dominate the interior (one is the solid-walled planetarium dome, the other is the glass-walled rainforest dome). These ‘hills’ on the roof are symmetrical, as is the rectangular building itself. The architecture is unapologetically modern and slick, with poured-in-place concrete walls puntuated by vast glass expanses, slick solar panel-and-glass canopies, steel railings, and bold graphics. The ‘green’ construction details even include wall insulation made out of recycled denim jeans, very appropriate in the city that supposedly invented them! The new building has been a great success in the design world (its architect is Renzo Piano, known to many as a ‘starchitect’) and has helped enliven and promote the Academy and its educational mission. It has also pushed its attendance over 1 million visitors a year. That attendance must be vital to help pay for the facility, which cost a jaw-dropping 500 million dollars – what zoo wouldn’t love to get their hands on that kind of cash for building projects? It makes exhibit complexes like San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey look like bargains! My review will focus on the live animal exhibits; I carefully noted the species in most of the exhibits and will include them even though it swells the review to a lengthy one. (When I say that a species is unnoted, that means that I did not note it, not that it is unsigned.) This museum is not the place to see live mammals, as there are none; however, there are some birds, many reptiles and amphibians, some terrestrial invertebrates, and a large collection of both freshwater and saltwater fish and invertebrates. By my count, there are about 150 permanent live animal exhibits. To avoid all the details, scroll down to the last paragraph for the summary! The museum building viewed from the Music Concourse in Golden Gate Park: The museum’s outdoor East and West Gardens are its biggest missed opportunity. Instead of creative and educational outdoor interactive displays and play elements, both are mostly flat expanses of lawn, mulch, and concrete seating terraces punctuated by a few uninspired statues. Dull. The only outdoor live animal exhibit is in the West Garden, where a low rectangular netted aviary houses a mix of California native raptors that I assume are injured and unreleasable: turkey vulture, Swainson’s hawk, and barn owl. They certainly could not fly in there, and must be content to hop around on the mulch and a few logs and stumps. All the other exhibits are interior ones, with about half of them lit from natural light and the other half in artificial light. The base of the Morrison Planetarium (one of the two large domes that dominate the design of the interior) has two naturally lit exhibits that adjoin one another. One is a small round glass column with an open top that focuses on red mangroves, with a live red mangrove inside and another one outside of it. It contains a shallow mucky pool for mudskipper and fiddler crab. It is viewed from a walkway that curves around the planetarium base, and the walkway adjoins the other exhibit here, a reef lagoon for bamboo shark, cownose ray, honeycomb ray, blue-spot stingray, mono, and blacktip reef shark. The lagoon is a uniform shallow depth with a sandy bottom, and is not especially large or naturalistic; it is more architectural, a look which is reinforced by banks of lamps mounted to the curving wall of the planetarium structure that adds additional lighting. This lighting is also for the adjoining Philippine Coral Reef main tank described later; both it and this reef lagoon are viewed from above their adjoining surfaces here, while the Philippine Coral Reef is also viewed from below in the halls of the Steinhart Aquarium. The surface of the Philippine Coral Reef main tank viewed from the base of the Morrison Planetarium: One of the galleries of the Kimball Natural History Museum is a large volume that adjoins the other side of the planetarium from the first exhibits mentioned above. It is the Islands of Evolution Gallery, and focuses on two island groups that the Academy has researched extensively: Galapagos and Madagascar. The Madagascar section of it has two live animal exhibits. One is called Spiny Desert and is an average glass-walled open-top habitat for radiated tortoise, spider tortoise, and Madagascar plated lizard. It has a sandy floor and some flat rocks with a few plants of the region but is not inspiring. There is also a small wall terrarium for hissing cockroach nearby, but it is one of the weaker exhibits for this species I have seen (the one at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago is the penultimate example). The gallery that is the symmetrical equivalent of the previous one on the other side of the building is the Climate Change Gallery: for some unknown reason to me, it has a single live animal exhibit in a decently-detailed naturalistic room viewed from several glass panels for albino reticulated python. I did not make the interpretive connection in this case. The gallery mentioned above adjoins one side of the dome of the rainforest described later; at the base of the rainforest dome on the other side is the symmetrical equivalent of the exhibits at the base of the planetarium, in this case an average small round glass column with an open top called Muddy Bottom that is filled with salt water and contains dwarf surfperch and tube-snout. Just as the surface view of the Philippine Coral Reef is on one side of the base of the planetarium, this side of the base of the rainforest has the surface view of the large Northern California Coast tank that is also viewed from windows in the Steinhart Aquarium below and described later. Therefore, the Muddy Bottom exhibit acts as a related interpretive preview of the California section of the aquarium that it adjoins. The Osher Rainforest (also called Rainforests of the World) is contained within a 90-foot diameter glass dome, brightly lit with round skylights in the unique roof above it as well as a cluster of round lamps above and natural light from the glass walls of the building on either side. Visitors enter it on the ground level and are immediately transported into a hot humid environment with live plants. The one-way walkway has a view of the forest floor, then goes into a cave, then reemerges on the floor before spiraling up a ramp that ascends around the edge of the dome two levels. At the top, visitors enter an elevator that descends down a central shaft below the forest floor into a basement hallway with window views into the Amazon Flooded Forest main tank that occupies the center of much of the forest floor. That hallway has other exhibits (mostly fish) of the Amazon and can be considered part of the Steinhart Aquarium described later, to which it leads. The rainforest is not especially verdant or immersive, but is certainly memorable for its architectural form and is filled with live animals. Inside it is a free-flight exhibit for 10 bird species of the tropics of the Americas: purple honeycreeper, opal-rumped tanager, paradise tanager, saffron finch, silver-beaked tanager, burnished-buff tanager, blue-gray tanager, red-shouldered tanager, turquoise tanager, and violaceous euphonia. It is also a free-flight exhibit for 10 butterfly species of the same region: Doris longwing, Sara longwing, Hecale longwing, banded orange heliconian, Isabella longwing, Sapho longwing, giant owl, blue morpho, zebra longwing, and postman. In addition to the free-ranging inhabitants are 28 small contained exhibits along the path, most of which are in small pedestal terrariums or aquariums. Unfortunately, these terrariums are grouped together too closely and at odd angles and crowded by adjoining small planters and clusters of decorative bamboo-like poles, so that walking around them on all sides to view the inhabitants is an obstacle course. The exhibits themselves however are mostly nice average displays with naturalistic details and live plants. The forest floor (ground level) continues the primary Americas theme with a perch structure in the greenery for blue-and-yellow macaw (not free-flying) and a complex rocky outcrop with small windows into caverns for leafcutter ants. A clear acrylic tube leads from it to a small glass column where staff can place leaves to be transported by the colony some distance away. The cave on the ground level as well as a cluster of terrariums adjoining it focus on Borneo: there are 4 nice exhibits behind glass in small rocky grottoes for water monitor, cave rat snake, cobalt blue tarantula, and red-tailed green rat snake. The 5 Borneo pedestal exhibits adjoining the cave are: Asian horned frog Clown loach, pearl gourami, harlequin rasbora Mangrove snake, Borneo river toad Kuhl’s flying gecko, file-eared treefrog, harlequin flying frog, orange spotted frog Flying snake The middle level landing along the ramp walkway has a Madagascar theme and features 12 pedestal exhibits: Ghost praying mantis Sakalava’s velvet gecko, Sambava tomato frog East Coast saroy, saroy, tarantsy, marakely, katria Madagascar killifish, Patricia’s killifish, Madagascar rainbowfish Madagascar leaf-nosed snake, green mantella Madagascar tree boa, painted mantella Standing’s Day Gecko, Henkel’s leaf-tailed gecko Madagascar giant day gecko, lined leaf-tailed gecko Orb spider, golden mantella Oustalet’s chameleon Panther chameleon Klemmer’s yellow-headed day gecko, gold dust day gecko The upper level landing along the ramp walkway (seen just before taking the elevator down to the Amazon Flooded Forest main tank) has a Costa Rica theme and features 5 pedestal exhibits: Green basilisk, strawberry poison dart frog Golden silk orbweaver Stream anole, striped dart frog Strawberry poison dart frog, green-and-black poison dart frog, yellow-headed gecko Tiger tree snake, red-eyed treefrog All along the ramp walkway, looking down to the center of the tree-filled volume reveals views of the surface of the fine Amazon Flooded Forest main tank below; the elevator that descends down to it has a glass panel on one side, and as it descends into the basement level the tank itself has a window next to the elevator so it appears that visitors descend into the river. The Osher Rainforest: The Amazon Flooded Forest area is a transition from the rainforest to the rest of the Steinhart Aquarium portion of the museum. The main tank is first seen from the elevator, but a more impressive view and longer viewing experience is provided by a long half-round clear visitor tunnel with low benches on each side for observing. In the tunnel, visitors look up to the tank’s surface and see the volume of the rainforest exhibit above. There are also views to the sides, into the depths of this fine exhibit that features large submerged stumps and deadfalls that continue the naturalistic rainforest theme. The inhabitants include pacu, peacock bass, silver arowana, armored catfish, tiger shovel-nosed catfish, redtail catfish, red-bellied pacu, arapaima, Atlantic tarpon, chocolate cichlid, turquoise severum, banded leporinus, redtail brycon, disk tetra, red-bellied piranha, red hook silver dollar, silver dollar, and pike cichlid. It is filled with activity and is a highlight of the museum. There are smaller exhibits in the plain modern darker hallway that composes this section of the aquarium. One of them is a pedestal terrarium that matches those seen earlier in the rainforest and is for Surinam toad. Another is an open-top aquarium tank with a small naturalistic backdrop, and is for freshwater stingray and several other unnoted species as well as for dyeing poison dart frog above the water. The remainder of the exhibits are small-to-medium sized naturalistic ones set in the walls behind glass: Amazon Flooded Forest: green iguana, anaconda, red hook silver dollar, silver tetra Unnoted (small fish) Electric eel Red-bellied piranha, bucktooth tetra Amazon pufferfish, cardinal tetra Like the rest of the aquarium to follow, the detailing inside the exhibits is mostly upper-average quality for exhibits of their type, and signage is provided by wall-mounted small computer monitors that slowly change their displays to cycle through each inhabitant species. Unfortunately, this cycling is a patience-tester for those who want to see all the inhabitant species names quickly, but the advantage is that they can be updated quickly and accurately while avoiding loads of plaques on the walls. The Amazon Flooded Forest main tank: Southern Swamp is the section of the Steinhart Aquarium that acts as the other entrance to it. It begins with a rectangular open-top exhibit seen from the ground level back lobby of the museum. It is an ode to the old museum: it recreates one of the traditional exhibits, being a formal pit lined with an attractive wrought-iron railing with a repeating seahorse form. Visitors look down into it, and it contains albino American alligator, alligator snapping turtle, largemouth bass, and red devil. The water surface is several feet below, and the wall of the pit is detailed like a naturalistic swamp bank on three sides punctuated by simulated cypress knobs and stumps with a full height simulated cypress tree rising above it all. There is also a small rocky island for the alligator to rest upon. A nearby stairway leads down to the basement level where the rest of the aquarium is located, and a single long underwater window provides a good view into the liquid depths of this first exhibit. As an alligator exhibit, it is unimpressive and intentionally tips its hat to the archaic exhibitry of yesteryear; however, as an alligator snapping turtle exhibit, it is a triumph! There are 5 alligator snapping turtles in its roomy volume, a far cry from the usual 1 displayed in a space barely large enough for it to turn around (I’m talking to you, Shedd Aquarium!). The only better exhibit of this species I can remember is one of the shallow lakes at San Antonio Zoo. Opposite this first exhibit in the plainly modern dark hallway of this section is a large tank for alligator gar and Texas cichlid; it is viewed from a long window on either side of its volume, but the bright natural backlight that floods in from the alligator exhibit and lobby makes this one difficult to see. 5 smaller wall exhibits behind glass complete this small section; it is typical for the aquarium to have a mix of aquarium and terrarium exhibits side-by-side. They are: Yellow rat snake, canebrake rattlesnake, Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, Everglades rat snake Black widow spider Oak toad, green treefrog, pitcher plant Lesser siren, golden topminnow Everglades pygmy sunfish Another small modern hallway in the aquarium is called Staff Picks and has about 15 small wall aquariums and terrariums. I ran out of time to note them, but they are a mix of live animal types in aquariums and terrariums as well as some plants and preserved specimens. I imagine these exhibits change frequently and are useful for highlighting species that may not fit into the larger themed sections. California Coast is another section of the aquarium, dominated by a very fine large main tank called Northern California Coast. It is the tank mentioned earlier with a surface view seen from above at the base of the Rainforest dome. In the aquarium’s basement level, it is viewed from an impressive floor-to-ceiling window that wraps around one of the tank’s corners. A few round windows also provide glimpses into it in other spots. Inside is a rocky wonderland, probably 18-20 feet deep, brimming with activity and it contains jacksmelt, vermillion rockfish, ocean whitefish, walleye surfperch, canary rockfish, China rockfish, rainbow surfperch, leopard shark, wolf eel, blue rockfish, striped surfperch, bat star, ochre seastar, purple sea urchin, club-tipped anemone, fish-eating anemone, giant plumose anemone, and giant green anemone. Nearby is Discovery Tidepool, an average hands-on staffed counter composed of a clear touchtank and a few small countertop tanks filled with various local sealife, mostly invertebrates. 11 smaller wall tanks of various sizes complete this section, and contain: Southern California Coast: unnoted Giant sea bass and 5 others unnoted Sand dollar Unnoted Sea nettle Giant Pacific octopus Rocky Reefs: 5 unnoted small tanks Compared to the other two regional California-focused aquariums, this section is the weakest but is still nice and educational. The Aquarium of the Bay a few miles away at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco is a little stronger than this California section of the Academy (see my review http://www.zoochat.com/22/review-aquarium-bay-san-francisco-99109/ ) and of course the Monterey Bay Aquarium about 90 miles South is stellar. However, neither one of those feature a significant representation of aquariums that focus on other regions like the Academy does. Northern California Coast main tank: Philippine Coral Reef is the largest section of the aquarium, and features the greatest and largest tank, the one whose surface is seen from above at the base of the planetarium. At 23 feet, this main tank is reportedly the deepest live coral exhibit in the world. The largest viewing area is a small curved amphitheater-like room dominated by a large floor-to-ceiling quarter-dome window. Another large window views another part of the exhibit, while a round window on the backside peers into a cave-like part of the reef. There are also two small dome-like windows that view an intimate alcove for garden eels that apparently stay in a part of the tank where they are placed; one of the domes is in a fun child-sized passageway. The extensive species are listed on a few computer kiosks next to viewing benches, but crowded conditions make it difficult for visitors to get a turn at reading them; I did not note the species in this tank due to that. However, the activity and variety in this wonderful exhibit is great. The dark modern hallways that surround the tank feature 20 additional smaller coral reef wall exhibits of various sizes, mostly above-average quality: Coral Reef: unnoted (I think these are Caribbean species) 8 small tanks, unnoted except 1 with Hector’s goby Reef Partnerships: 6 small tanks, unnoted except 1 with carpet anemone and anemone crab Zebra moray, snowflake moray, whitemouth moray, laced moray eel, cleaner shrimp Chambered nautilus Upside-down jellyfish Lionfish Flashlight fish, splitfin flashlight fish Philippine Coral Reef main tank: Water Planet is the central room of the aquarium and the last one described in this review. It is a slick visual treat lined with textured blue walls with a sophiticated undulating liquid pattern. The exhibits generally interpret the abundance or scarcity of water and its effects on environments around the world. All of the exhibits are small ones, most of them set in the walls, with their irregular shapes dictated by fitting in to the undulating patterns. Some are salt water, others are freshwater, and others are terrariums. There are 38 exhibits; this is probably the most concentrated area of the aquarium for fascinating intimate views of animals, although the exhibit interiors tend to be a little more abstract or undetailed in design. The first 5 in this list are freestanding exhibits in the middle of the room, the rest are set in the walls: Black-headed python, Woma python, Centralian carpet python Vietnamese mossy frog Leafy seadragon, pot-bellied seahorse Moon jelly Yellow perch Australian lungfish Samurai gourami Redtail Killifish Butterfly splitfin Weedy seadragon Lined seahorse Empty Soft corals Banggai cardinalfish Vampire crab Ornate cowfish, Shaw’s cowfish Grunt sculpin Pig-nosed turtle Camel shrimp Serpent sea star, brittle star, fuzzy lionfish Sunburst diving beetle Fishing spider Giant water bug Sunfish and 4 others unnoted Archerfish and unnoted snake Blue green chromis, brain coral Glass fish Upside-down catfish Dwarf cuttlefish, leather coral Featherduster worm, Coco worm, Fu Manchu lionfish Conch, spaghetti algae, marine betta Peacock mantis shrimp Humming toadfish Blind cave fish Elephant nose, Gardner’s killifish Mexican beaded lizard Centralian carpet python hatchlings Desert pupfish African Hall is one of the galleries of the Kimball Natural History Museum and contains several live animal exhibits, although the majority of it is composed of 17 African dioramas with stuffed specimens. The dioramas are mostly large mammals; antelope fans will be especially interested in the two rare Hunter’s hartebeest specimens. The hall is quite different from the rest of the museum, being laid out in a formal hall with a coffered barrel ceiling that is an ode to the old one typical of the grand natural history museums. The end of the hall is dominated by a large vaulted window that provides both above-water and below-water viewing for the African penguin exhibit. About 15 inhabitants enjoy swimming in the roomy pool that fronts the exhibit, and hopping onto the rocky ledge at the back. A simulated sky is painted on the backdrop. It is an average exhibit for this type, but adds a much-needed level of activity to the hall. Between some of the dioramas are a smaller wall aquarium and terrariums for: Lake Malawi cichlids Savanna monitor Great plated lizard, pancake tortoise Jackson’s chameleon The Academy Café also has a single exhibit: a very long wall aquarium for unnoted tropical fish. The adjoining formal restaurant, The Moss Room, has a long shallow open-top aquarium with large unnoted goldfish that runs along the base of its mossy and fern-covered backdrop wall. A temporary special exhibit called Snakes and Lizards is featured for Summer 2011. In addition to highlighting the permament displays of these species throughout the museum, the special exhibits hall features 20 additional terrariums. For temporary exhibits, they are nicely detailed and built into a system of cabinets with matching interpretive graphics. The whole thing looks like it was designed with the intention that it may be rented to other institutions as a traveling exhibit. No photography is allowed in this hall, which may be further proof that the Academy hopes it will be featured elsewhere. The exhibits contain: Burmese python Campbell’s milk snake Red spitting cobra Gaboon viper, Eastern green mamba Amazonian tree boa, Emerald tree boa Rhinoceros iguana Water monitor Eastern water dragon Chuckwalla Frilled Lizard Veiled chameleon Cuban night anole Collared lizard Green basilisk Crested gecko Tropical girdled lizard Blue-tongued skink Gila monster Green tree monitor Madagascar giant day gecko, common leaf-tailed gecko, Henkel’s leaf-tailed gecko, lined leaf-tailed gecko California Academy of Sciences is an excellent educational institution and a worthwhile destination for small animal enthusiasts and aquarium fans. Its reptile collection (especially in Summer 2011) along with its amphibian collection fills a void in the zoo selection in the region, since San Francisco Zoo, Oakland Zoo, and Six Flags Discovery Kingdom are all weak in these categories. Its insect displays are not quite as extensive as San Francisco Zoo’s but they are more attractive displays. I do not rank it in my zoo list rankings (it’s just too museum-y to do so) but I do rank the Steinhart Aquarium portion at number 23 in the 45 aqauriums I have visited. The Philippine Coral Reef main tank is number 25 in my top 25 aquarium exhibits list. For zoo and aquarium fans (and museum fans too), the downfall of this facility is its admission price. General adult admission is a steep $29.95 (and is even higher at $34.95 during select holiday periods!). That makes it one of the most expensive museums in the United States, not to mention one of the most expensive aquariums as well. It is overpriced, but by how much is difficult to say because it combines several facilities that might otherwise be stand-alone attractions elsewhere (the excellent planetarium show, currently called Life in the Cosmos with an emphasis on the search for biology, is included in admission too). I have posted additional pictures in the gallery.