SAN FRANCISCO — One of the best ways to see what’s in the earth’s backyards — vast areas untouched by technology and urbanization — is 90 minutes away from the 209.
San Francisco’s majestic and iconic Golden Gate Park harbors one of the largest museums of natural history in the world — the California Academy of Sciences.
It is a gateway to a better understanding of nature just as the San Jose Tech Museum is a gateway to a better understanding of technology.
You could easily spend an entire day wandering through the museum’s 40,000 square feet soaking up the wonders in what is also one of the world’s newest natural museums after it was completely rebuilt in 2008.
It had been a good 45 years since I last stepped foot in California Academy of Sciences. I had been to the old museum a dozen times going at least once a year as a young kid growing up on my dad’s insistence during summer vacation trips to visit my aunt in San Francisco. One summer I went multiple times with my aunt Grace who was a member. At the time she was buying exotic seashells from the academy with the most expensive purchase being an exotic shell costing more than $1,000 back when she bought it in the late 1960s.
The reason Grace would buy seashells and drop serious jack doing so? Her answer was always, “because they’re pretty.”
That’s a good way to describe what the California Academy of Sciences offers if you don’t have Walter Mitty daydreams of being a deep sea diver or go on safari in Africa or if you’re not hell-bent on a career in natural sciences.
Most of the people — young and old — we encountered Saturday wandering through the three-level museum plus strolling on the living roof were simply enjoying the beauty before them. It’s not that you can’t learn a lot — you can. Touch pad screens throughout the aquarium are effective tech flashcards of information.
The California Academy of Sciences first and foremost is a scientific research and education institution. But it is a wonderful way of getting a drive-by look of sorts of nature’s beauty and wonders. It is a great way to pique the interest of young people in science disciplines that go beyond basic silicon chips and coding.
There are still some leftovers from the pre-2008 California Academy of Sciences. They include the giant Foucault Pendulum that demonstrates how the earth rotates as well as the diorama displays in the African Hall of bagged big game preserved and placed in static displays of their natural settings. It is clear for a Bay Area populace that can access the San Francisco Zoo, Marine World, the Oakland Zoo or head down to Pier 39 to take in the sea lions that this wasn’t a major draw. You can get a better feel from Internet videos. But what saves the day is the tank of African penguins at the end of the African Hall.
Watching the penguins frolic, dive, paddle, and waddle up close through glass through the glass is a crowd please. People, regardless of their age, lingered for five minutes or more. In other words, don’t write off the African Hall. The one non-static exhibit is 20 times more fun than anything you’d observe at the zoo or Marine World.
So what are the major attraction at the California Academy of Sciences?
uPLANETARIUM: The dome show and the chance to “travel through space” is first rate. With city lights — including here in the Central Valley — there’s a lot that you don’t see in the night sky. There is something insanely cool about seeing an 8 year-old react to celestial features especially when someone points out to them the various constellations in the heavens created through the connection of bright dots by the ancient Greeks and Romans and mentions they were the same stars that were in the sky when dinosaurs roamed the earth.
uRAINFOREST: The three level sphere is a re-creation of the microclimates you’d find in a rainforest from the fauna to the moths and butterflies to the fish and even macaws.
uSWAMP: There is little doubt the albino alligator is the big hit but there are plenty of snapping turtles and fish to look at from above and through glass walls.
uEARTHQUAKE: You can learn about the different types of earthquakes and what causes them. They also have trips down memory lane with an extensive photo collection from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake plus the “shake table” that gives you a first-hand experience of the relative power of various quakes as rated by the Richter scale.
uPROJECT LAB: It is a multi-user, state-of-the-art lab outfitted with the equipment researchers use to prepare, process, and catalog specimens for the Academy’s collections and exhibits. It is intended to blur the line between lab and public exhibit as it features overhead cameras that deliver close-up views of the scientific activity taking place behind the glass wall.
uCOLOR OF LIFE: This exhibit educates you on the role of colors in nature and includes vibrantly colored live animals.
uNATURALIST CENTER: A hands on exhibit featuring real specimens as well as scientific activities
uGEMS & MINERALS UNEARTHED: The Academy’s collection of geology specimens.
uFORUM THEATRE: The Academy’s offering of various shows and presentations using dynamic visuals
uTHE LOWER LEVEL AQUARIUM: This is arguably where the academy excels.
Old-style museum aquariums had glass walled aquariums as well but they were usually a series of large tank with lighting where the viewers stood at typical room levels.
Not only does the Academy break its aquarium collection into smaller tanks but the lighting is significantly subdued. While this — one must assume — is more natural for the fish and such on exhibit but it also provides a more natural viewing environment.
The aquarium runs the gamut from displays emphasizing the California coast and coral reefs around the world but also to a flooded Amazon rainforest, a discovery tide pool where staff guides you through hands on experiences to deeper water creatures in an area aptly dubbed “The Twilight Zone.”
There is also a children’s gallery, a junior lab, an explorers cave for kids ages 5 and under as well as a store and café. Even if the unique roof doesn’t impress you, the views will.
The living roof is just that — a roof planted with living grasses and plants.
The nice thing about the museum is you are in Golden Gate Park. It is well worth taking a short walk.
That way you can work up an appetite to enjoy a meal at one of San Francisco’s endless dining options.