Most people experience San Francisco Bay as the spectacular backdrop to one of the world’s most beautiful metropolitan areas. But the Aquarium of the Bay at San Francisco’s Pier 39 reveals the diverse life found beneath the surface of this fragile estuary—the largest in California.
The aquarium is the next best thing to strapping on scuba gear and diving into the bay itself, a unique ecosystem where snowmelt and runoff from the Sierra Nevada meets the waters of the Pacific Ocean. You’ll get close-up looks at more than 200 species of animals that live in the bay or nearby along the California coast, everything from several species of sharks to playful river otters.
Touch pools let visitors have hands-on encounters—literally—with sea stars, bat rays, and skates. Also, you can walk through the aquarium’s Under the Bay gallery, where a 300-foot-long acrylic tunnel travels within a 700,000-gallon aquarium that replicates both deepwater and near-shore environments. You’ll not only be surrounded by shimmering schools of anchovies but will come face-to-face with imposing sevengill sharks, the bay’s biggest predators. Colorful jellyfish glide gracefully through the waters, while massive, prehistoric-looking white sturgeons, which can weigh 1,300 pounds and are North America’s largest freshwater fish, sometimes swim into view.
Far cuddlier are the aquarium’s four river otters, which range between the bay and the rivers that flow into it. Or for anyone who has been enchanted by the nature documentary My Octopus Teacher, the aquarium is also home to the giant Pacific octopus, the world’s largest species at 50 pounds.
As fascinating as it is to observe the aquarium’s 20,000 creatures, you’ll also learn about such environmental threats to the bay ecosystem as climate change and plastic pollution. And for an even more immersive experience, sign up for special tours that include behind-the-scenes looks at aquarium operations and even the chance to feed sharks.
After your aquarium visit, take time to wander among Pier 39’s shops and restaurants, including the landmark Eagle Café (open since 1928) and Fog Harbor Fish House, one of San Francisco’s top seafood destinations. The pier also has more ways to experience San Francisco’s wildlife. During winter, as many as 900 sea lions congregate and carouse on the pier’s docks, and the aquarium operates the Sea Lion Center, where interactive exhibits and videos introduce visitors to the natural history and behavior of these marine mammals. Or head out from the pier for whale-watching trips with San Francisco Whale Tours.