Step into to a bird's house. Get eye-to-eye with a moray eel. Greet a sea turtle as he swims up to say hello. The Living Coast Discovery Center isn't a nature museum?it's a chance to hang out with Southern California's plants and animals on their own turf. The Discovery Center's "living, breathing, flapping, buzzing, and splashing home" sits on the 316-acre Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, the ideal location for exploration of the region's most memorable residents in their native habitats.
A walk-through aviary encompasses the tidal slough habitat of black-crowned night herons, red-breasted mergansers, and endangered clapper rail chicks, freshly hatched from the in-house breeding program. Bald and golden eagles await up-close encounters at the Eagle Mesa, but the rays get even closer: an interactive touch pool puts the aquatic creatures beneath your fingertips. Raptor Row hosts the Center's rescued birds of prey, all of which have injuries or other conditions that prevent them from surviving outside the refuge on their own. Visitors are also free to pursue their own wildlife adventure along the center's 1.5 miles of walking trails.
It's hard to imagine a seaside dining experience more complete than the one at Dolphins Restaurant, Bar & Banquet. Sailboat masts bob in the harbor just beyond floor-to-ceiling windows, a red canoe hangs from the ceiling to complement nautical flags on the walls, and at the entrance visitors are greeted by a bronze sculpture depicting a human pyramid of dolphins. And that's before you get a look at the menu. Classic seafood dishes such as lobster tails and grilled teriyaki mahi mahi fill plates during dinner service but also during weddings, when tables are draped in white cloth, decorated with floral arrangements, and cleared of all single people. The restaurant also offers a weekly Sunday brunch, with more than 50 items to choose from.
At the sushi bar, chefs wrap colorful seafood and vegetable combinations into 25 largely simple rolls, including the Chef's Marina, which contains tempura rock shrimp and avocado, and the Tijuana, which pairs spicy tuna with roasted jalapenos. In the evening, a tree-studded patio glows with light from several fire-pits, and occasionally the whole restaurant fills with music from live bands, mariachi bands, and DJs.
Birch Aquarium is an exciting interactive museum and public exploration center of the world-renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego that sits atop a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The stellar aquarium is home to more than 60 habitats of fish and invertebrates, and interactive exhibits reveal the research of Scripps scientists on climate, earth and ocean science. Kids love the dainty sea horses, which Scripps successfully breeds, and the chance marvel at the ethereal sea dragons. Naturalists also lead tide pool walks, snorkeling adventures and whale watching tours at certain times throughout the year. Underwater kelp cams reveal the activity and denizens of the sea, while the living tide pools allow visitors to touch sea stars, hermit crabs, sea cucumbers, lobsters and other unique animals local to San Diego's tide pools.
For those humans who are lamentably landlocked, SEA LIFE Aquarium offers a hands-on, educational aquatic experience filled with up-close animal viewings, fishy feeding frenzies, interactive encounters, and more. Seafaring adventure awaits across the multi-faceted aquarium map, which is highlighted by the Lost City of Atlantis, where you can take a stroll through a 200,000-gallon mini-sea filled with sharks, stingrays, and other sea creatures. Around the bend, the Southern California Tide Pool hosts a meet ’n’ greet for starfish fanatics and human-hungry sea stars alike. Catch a variety of aquarium activities throughout the week, including shark, octopus, and seahorse feedings; puppet shows; and close encounters with nature's most misunderstood predatory polyp, the sea anemone.