A visitor snaps a photo of fish in a tunnel at Aquarium of the Bay on Friday. (Sebastian Miño-Bucheli/Special to S.F. Examiner)

A visitor snaps a photo of fish in a tunnel at Aquarium of the Bay on Friday. (Sebastian Miño-Bucheli/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Aquarium of the Bay sees influx of visitors as restrictions lift

After being shut down for nearly a year and at one point being forced to furlough staff, Aquarium of the Bay at Pier 39 was able to reopen its doors to the public at 25% capacity on March 5. Now it is hosting visitors at 50% capacity, and has seen a sharp rise in attendance numbers.

“We’d be making our 50% cap almost regularly, all through the last 30 days or so, which is more encouraging than what the numbers were at 100% in 2019,” said George Jacob, president and CEO of the Bay Ecotarium, the entity that oversees the Aquarium of the Bay. “So what that means for us is that there is an increased regional tourism trend. There are more people driving into San Francisco and more residents coming into Pier 39 … for various reasons.”

Visitors check out decorative seals in front of Pier 39’s Aquarium of the Bay, which is hosting an increasing number of guests. (Sebastian Miño-Bucheli/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Visitors check out decorative seals in front of Pier 39’s Aquarium of the Bay, which is hosting an increasing number of guests. (Sebastian Miño-Bucheli/Special to S.F. Examiner)

The aquarium, which is home to 24,000 animals and over 200 species, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, having opened its doors April 19, 1996.

Of the more than 15 million visitors the aquarium has served since its opening, about 7-8 million are estimated to be children, Jacob said.

“Each year, we offer 70,000 kids free education, and we hope to provide that in this year as well,” Jacob said. “And we have switched gears to offer a number of online programs on biodiversity, on bioacoustics, on plastic pollution and climate change, including environmental justice.”

Young guests at Aquarium of the Bay wait for an otter to swim by. (Sebastian Miño-Bucheli/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Young guests at Aquarium of the Bay wait for an otter to swim by. (Sebastian Miño-Bucheli/Special to S.F. Examiner)

When the shelter-in-place order initially took effect in San Francisco March 17, the aquarium furloughed 70 members of its 100-person staff, keeping some on to care for the animals, which require 24/7 care. Now, Jacob says, they are operating with a staff of around 70, and also rely on about 24 volunteer divers.

“Our first priority is the safety of our staff,” Jacob said. “So nearly 100% of them — our essential workers — have been vaccinated. So that’s a huge plus for us.”

In addition to being open at 50% capacity, the aquarium hosts interactive virtual tours that give a “behind-the-scenes” look at the aquarium, starting at $40 for groups of one to four people.

A family takes its time observing the many fish at Aquarium of the Bay on Friday. (Sebastian Miño-Bucheli/Special to S.F. Examiner)

A family takes its time observing the many fish at Aquarium of the Bay on Friday. (Sebastian Miño-Bucheli/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Though the nearly yearlong closure resulted in the loss of millions of dollars, Jacob says aquarium officials are feeling “cautiously optimistic” that the number of visitors will continue to increase, especially leading up to the Memorial Day and Fourth of July weekends.

“We’re looking forward to a brighter future,” Jacob said.

Jellyfish are popular at Aquarium of the Bay. (Sebastian Miño-Bucheli/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Jellyfish are popular at Aquarium of the Bay. (Sebastian Miño-Bucheli/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Schools of Pacific sardines are among the attractions at Aquarium of the Bay. (Sebastian Miño-Bucheli/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Schools of Pacific sardines are among the attractions at Aquarium of the Bay. (Sebastian Miño-Bucheli/Special to S.F. Examiner)

mbeck@sfexaminer.com

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