Even from your first few steps into the park, SeaWorld San Diego aims to transport you to the edges of the ocean and beyond. Start by entering Explorer’s Reef, near the park’s entrance: Walk under a huge wave sculpture to discover the edge-of-the-sea world of the coral reef. Wraparound touch pools let you stroke brown-banded and white-spotted bamboo sharks (don’t worry, they’re harmless), plus California round rays and other creatures. For one of the world’s weirder sensations, dangle your fingers and let some of the exhibit’s 4,000 cleaner fish, each about the size of a child’s pinky, harmlessly nibble on your skin.
Go a little deeper into the park for a wide range of aquariums and marine-life encounters, including the up-close Dolphin Point and Sea Lion Point. The 280,000-gallon Shark Encounter takes you underwater—safely through a 57-foot acrylic tube—to get up close to a shark habitat that includes sand tiger, bonnethead, blacktip, and whitetip reef sharks. Nearby Turtle Reef is home to dozens of threatened loggerhead, hawksbill, and green sea turtles, as well as thousands of tropical fish (play the touch-screen game, Turtlelink, to learn about sea turtle tracking and SeaWorld’s turtle rescue efforts).
One of the biggest cute zones is Otter Outlook, which features a display of California sea otters, and is part of a partnership with the Monterey Bay Aquarium; check the schedule for daily presentations about this threatened species. And don’t miss the Penguin Encounter, with nearly 300 tuxedoed critters, representing six Antarctic and sub-Antarctic species (including the Gentoo, Macaroni, and Emperor).
For the quirkiest creatures, go to the Ocean Explorer area, and check out the quick-camouflaging giant Pacific octopus, eerie moray, and the massive Japanese spider crabs (the biggest of their kind in the sea). Be sure to stop by The Rescue Plaza, near Orca Encounter, to learn about the SeaWorld Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation Program, which has rescued more than 17,000 animals over the years—mostly sea lions, seals, and marine birds—with the goal of nursing them back to health and then returning them to the wild. If you’re a fan of Sea Rescue, ABC’s Emmy-winning series about those efforts—many of which are based in San Diego—you can watch episodes on the big screen at the park’s Mission Bay Theater.