Just steps away from the carnival rides, games, and snack bars of the Santa Monica Pier—in fact, right below Pacific Park’s carousel—sits this unassuming attraction that offers a fascinating window into the underwater community of this famous L.A. beach town.
Managed by an environmental nonprofit group called Heal the Bay, the Heal the Bay Aquarium (the former Santa Monica Pier Aquarium) houses 100 local species—from charmingly cute sea hares to spooky moray eels—and invites guests to get hands-on through exhibits and daily educational programs. Plus, it’s free for kids age 12 and younger and only $5 for adults.
Tag along, for instance, with staffers to collect sand crab data out on the beach. Look at (harmless) horn or swell sharks in an open-top tank, or check out a colorful mural to learn about water’s journey through the Santa Monica Mountains watershed. Kids can stick their hands in the touch tanks to get acquainted with sea cucumbers, urchins, and hermit crabs, or explore the simulated tide exhibit that shows how anemones and juvenile fish do their own version of surfing.
Check the website for daily activities, such as the Microscopic Safari, during which kids get to look through scopes to see the tiniest Santa Monica denizens.
For another fun local freebie, take one of the pier’s guided walking tours, which shares fun stories about the pier over the years, including the Santa Monica origins of that greens-loving cartoon sailor, Popeye.