Academy of Sciences holding free day for aquarium anniversary

Courtesy photoDivers plunge into Steinhart Aquarium's Philippine Coral Reef every day at 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.

Courtesy photoDivers plunge into Steinhart Aquarium's Philippine Coral Reef every day at 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.

The most spectacularly renovated component of the California Academy of Sciences, Steinhart Aquarium, is celebrating its 90th anniversary with a day of free admission Sunday.

Before the new building in Golden Gate Park opened in 2008, the aquarium was a homey, interesting place, well-remembered by millions of visitors, mostly veterans of class field trips.

Now it's a unique wonderland of enormous tanks teeming with marine life. Glass cases take up whole walls, and viewers can look up and around them to see fish frolicking behind special glass of extraordinary strength and clarity.

Aquarium Director Bart Shepherd says that when he came to the academy 17 years ago, “It was a well-established San Francisco institution with a rich history and a reputation for exhibiting aquatic life from all around the world.”

It has since improved its status, Shepherd says: “We have continued to break new ground, presenting biodiversity in a way that educates and engages visitors from all around the world.”

Over the decades it has showcased the Alligator Swamp exhibit, a two-headed snake, the enormous Philippine Coral Reef, Butterball the Amazonian manatee, a living great white shark and the Fish Roundabout that surrounded the visitor. Today's aquarium represents its third iteration.

Funded principally by Ignatz Steinhart in honor of his brother Sigmund Steinhart (a German-born Jewish merchant, stockbroker, founder of the Pacific Union Club and a major San Francisco philanthropist), the aquarium opened Sept. 29, 1923. It was rebuilt in 1963 and again in 2008. The cumulative visitor count now is at 150 million.

Steinhart has some 38,000 animals from more than 900 separate species, offering a view of underwater life and providing insight into the critical role that aquatic environments play in life on Earth. The 100,000-gallon Northern California Coast Tank replicates the habitats of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.

Among the aquarium's new headliners: the rare larger Pacific striped octopus and Linus, the first penguin chick hatched in the new building.

IF YOU GO

Steinhart Aquarium Celebrates 90 Years

Where: California Academy of Sciences, 55 Music Concourse Drive, Golden Gate Park, S.F.

When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: Free

Contact: (415) 379-8000, www.calacademy.org

Art & MuseumsartsBart ShepherdCalifornia Academy of SciencesSteinhart Aquarium

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