Only one guessing game at Academy of Sciences

Nature will certainly be on parade Saturday when the new California Academy of Sciences officially opens to the public. The only question museum officials are grappling with is not whether the event will be a big hit, but just how big.

“We know there will be many thousands, we just don't know how many thousands,'' said Christopher Andrews, the director of the academy's public programs.

Andrews has been in charge of getting the exhibits ready for public views, which involved transferring thousands of fish, birds, reptiles and amphibians to the stunning new facility on the Music Concourse in Golden Gate Park. Despite the daunting task, he says scientists have had nearly nine months to meet their goal, and it's gone as smoothly as possible.

“It may sound strange, but we're actually in pretty good shape,'' he said, noting that they have had quite a number of private members previews during the past few weeks. “When you're preparing exhibits, it's almost like tending a garden and seeing how it's growing. You keep tweaking it and changing it along the way.''

When I visited the academy a few weeks back, workers were still installing new lights in the African Hall, which is probably the only part of the building visitors will immediately recognize because it's been reconstructed almost as it was 80 years ago. They'll also warm to the alligator swamp near the southern entrance, though Claude, a rare albino alligator, is a new addition and certain to be one of the most popular attractions.

There will be about 2,500 fish swimming in the academy's tanks by this weekend — a number that will continue to grow by year's end. By then, the academy should have a better sense of the size of the crowds. Currently they expect about two million visitors within the first year.

But Saturday's opening, which is free and has extended hours from 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., is expected to draw a huge crowd — enough so that officials strongly urge people not to drive.

Think of it as a walk in the park.

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