“We are in the very early stages of an exciting expansion project that would allow Birch Aquarium at Scripps to increase the capacity of our current aquarium and science center,” said Aquarium executive director Harry Helling. “We have been at our current location for 25 years now and we need to expand in order to better serve the community.”
Helling said the idea with the proposed aquarium expansion is to “create more touch points to share Scripps' science, and actively engage guests in UC San Diego’s strategic initiative of Understanding and Protecting the Planet.”
“By next summer we will have detailed programming and conceptual drawings and will start talking about this project in more detail,” continued Helling. “There will be opportunities for the community to be involved in the planning of the expansion, including neighborhood meetings and testing exhibit prototypes.”
Scripps officials have estimated the proposed expansion could cost about $20 million.
The aquarium, which turned 25 on Sept. 16, has had its attendance increased by roughly 100,000 over the past decade, partly because it is doing a better job of highlighting Scripps scientists' research in exotic locales like Antarctica. Nearly 500,000 people visited Birch last year.
People have been shoehorned into the existing aquarium that has only 64,000 square-feet of space. The congestion has been particularly bad during the summer when families and tourists descend on the Birch. During the past year, family memberships have increased by roughly 3,500 — reaching the 10,000 mark. The crowds have been adding to the building’s physical stress, causing problems.
Birch Aquarium spokesperson Beth Chee said the expansion project is in the very early stages, adding the full scope “is unknown at this time. The aquarium is currently concluding an active search to identify an architectural firm to assist with programming and conceptual drawings, which should be complete by next summer.”
Chee pointed out the project is expected to be completed in phases to minimize the impact on Aquarium operations and the community.
“The goal is for the first phase to open in five years,” Chee said. “In order to move forward, Birch Aquarium would need to gain community support, raise the necessary funds, and get approval from regulatory agencies. There will be opportunities for the community to learn more about this project as it evolves.”
Birch has always highlighted the work of Scripps researchers. But the subject has received increased attention since Margaret Leinen became the institute’s director in 2013. She wants the public to have a better understanding of the institute, which does everything from study climate change at the world’s poles to monitor the health of coral reefs in remote areas of the Pacific.
“The San Diego community has come to rely on Birch Aquarium as a source for information about all of Scripps Oceanography research, not just a place to see marine organisms,” said Leinen, an oceanographer.
Scripps Institution of Oceanography, founded in 1903, is one of the oldest and largest centers for ocean and Earth science research, public service and undergraduate and graduate training in the world. Hundreds of ocean and Earth scientists conduct research with the aid of oceanographic research vessels and shore-based laboratories.
SIO is a division of the University of California San Diego. The public explorations center of the institution is the Birch Aquarium at Scripps.
Since becoming part of the University of California in 1912, the institution has expanded its scope to include studies of the physics, chemistry, geology, biology, and climate of Earth.