Journey through the California Academy of Sciences
• Photo gallery: California Academy of Sciences
By Monica Quock Chan
Special to The Advertiser
An albino alligator and a two-headed snake. A Foucault pendulum knocking down pegs. Methuselah, an Australian lungfish who first came to the aquarium in 1938.
Vivid memories from visits to San Francisco's California Academy of Sciences as a youth have stayed with me. So when I heard that the museum's decade-long, $500 million renovation was near completion, I made plans to visit.
The highlight of the academy might well be the multistory translucent sphere that houses the "Rainforests of the World" exhibit. Guests ascend through the rainforest via a spiral pathway, lined with exhibits highlighting each tropical location.
First is Borneo, with its live cobalt-blue tarantula, flying snake, poisonous tree frogs, and a replica of the giant rafflesia flower (the real ones smell like decaying meat).
On the way to Madagascar, with its lemurs and giant orb spider, I peer down at the hanging vines and catfish swimming below. Eventually I reach the top, with its Costa Rican birds and amazing density of flitting butterflies.
A see-through elevator whisks me down into the Amazon and its underwater tunnel, where the piranhas are safely behind glass. Here, daring visitors can feel what it's like to be shocked by an electric eel or squeezed by an anaconda. Before I exit the Rainforest, the docent looks me over.
"Butterfly check," she announces, and I remember the warning that what lives in the Rainforest must stay in the Rainforest. Like Jurassic Park, wayward specimens could wreak havoc on California's natural environment. I, too, would not want flying snakes on the loose.
From the Amazon, I enter the rest of the Steinhart Aquarium, where the Philippine Coral Reef exhibit houses the deepest living coral tank in the world.
The Northern California Coast Tank showcases local species, while Water Planet houses intriguing rotating exhibits.
There's a swamp; its turtles and alligators can be viewed from two levels. Bizarre species appear everywhere — upside-down jellyfish and humming toadfish, dainty dwarf prawns, insect-eating butterworts, and the once-thought-extinct coelacanths. Claude, the albino alligator of my youth, is still here, and so is Methuselah the lungfish, now more than 70 years old.
For a hands-on experience, the Discovery Tidepool is staffed by helpful docents. Interactive stations such as the Coral Reef's "Dive Deeper" allow me to, for example, place an eel skull on the "Research" panel and watch a video clip on eel X-rays. Much of the museum's signage is computer-based, and further information can be obtained by dialing the posted numbers next to the displays.
Leaving the 38,000 aquarium animals behind, I head upstairs to the spacious African Hall and dioramas of the familiar (zebras, lions) and the exotic (klipspringers, black lechwes). The most popular creatures, however, are Pierre, Ocio and their friends: African penguins that frolic, splash, and swim.
"They seem to be attracted to the kids," observes the docent as one penguin follows a toddler's hand motions. The museum is kid-friendly, with an Early Explorers Cove designed for children ages 2 to 5. There are also regularly scheduled activities for youth such as story time, science adventures and nature crafts.
Leaving the hall, I spot the planetarium just beyond the Reef Lagoon. "Journey to the Stars" and "Fragile Planet" are showing. The dome also has the ability to host live NASA feeds, "tours of the universe," and field broadcasts. My second cousin, Bing Quock, has loved astronomy for as long as I can remember. He is now the assistant director for this, the world's biggest all-digital planetarium.
"Bugs! in 3D," is being screened in the forum. Shot on location in Borneo, it complements the first level of the Rainforest.
I move on to the "Islands of Evolution" section. The isolated gems of Madagascar and the Galapagos form the basis of this exhibit, which is flanked by a towering wall of photographs depicting the Earth's timeline.
The academy is focused on sustainability and is the recipient of the highest-level Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, certification by the U.S. Green Building Council.
It passes this message on to visitors, who can learn how to reduce their own carbon footprint in the "Altered State: Climate Change in California" section. This area also houses the academy's original Tyrannosaurus rex and the 87-foot blue whale skeletons.
Heading upstairs, I stop by the Naturalist Center. After the high-tech, interactive experience of the main exhibits, the center feels hushed with its books and catalogued specimens.
Above, the academy's Living Roof is living proof that buildings can be both sustainable and fascinating. Weather stations and skylights dot this otherworldly landscape, its hills are covered with native California flora.
It's a roof "inspired by the concept of lifting up a piece of the park and sliding the museum underneath," says the sign.
"The plants are supported in these biodegradable trays made of coconut husks and tree sap," the docent explains, showing us a sample of one of the 50,000 BioTrays that line the 2.5 acre area.
After taking in the expansive views of Golden Gate Park, including the funky neighboring de Young Museum, I head back downstairs to the Academy Caf[0xe9]. I savor my Vietnamese noodle salad and contemplate the day's journey: from rainforests to reefs, planets to penguins, and evolution to environmentalism.
As a child, my trips to the original academy were filled with amazement at nature's marvels, and sparked dozens of questions for my parents and teachers. The new academy brought that same sense of wonder and excitement back, and reminded me once again what fun it is to explore.
Monica Quock Chan is a Honolulu-based freelance writer and former marketing executive. She has lived in Europe and Asia, and has traveled to nearly 70 countries.