Yesterday I visited the newly re-opened California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. It had been closed for several years while they completely rebuilt it from the ground up. They just had the grand opening in September but this is the first time I have visited since it reopened. I had been to the old Academy of Sciences many times, from childhood school field trips into teenage visits to "Laserium" for the Dark Side of the Moon show, and as an adult many times. I loved the old Academy and the old Steinhart Aquarium, which were built in the 1920's and 30's.
The architecture was cool, the reptile and amphibian room for example had beautiful mosaic floors with snakes and lizards. The collections were somewhat old fashioned- lots of taxidermied animal specimens. But I liked that sort of musty turn of the century naturalist vibe of the old place.
But it was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, so the city decided to replace it with a more modern building. (which did not start construction until 2005)
The new building is bigger, or seems so from the front.
It's very modern and reminds me of my old high school. Exposed concrete, I-beams, lots of glass, it looks like a prison or a factory. It's also supposedly the greenest museum in the country. It uses recycled building materials, it's insulated with recycled bluejeans (how quintessentially San Franciscan, since Levi Strauss headquarters are here), and it has a much-discussed "living roof" planted with all native California species and wildflowers.
This dome is the roof over the rainforest exhibit, with lots of skylights.
All this construction isn't cheap. The price of admission is much higher than I remember from the old Academy. It was $25 for one adult, but you can get a $3 discount if you took public transportation and show your bus transfer.
When I got inside I got the little map guide and right off I noticed how many things were missing. Many of my favorite exhibits from the old Academy are completely gone.
1. The hall of gems and minerals- this was small, nowhere near as good as the one in the Los Angeles natural history museum which I visited this past April. But it was still interesting and beautiful and it didn't take up much space so I don't know why they got rid of it. Many of the rock specimens were also native to California and there was a nice display about the gold rush. Another important piece of local history which is missing from the new museum.
2. California coastal life exhibit, which had dioramas of animals like elephant seals and tule elk, as well as greatly magnified models of krill and other microscopic critters. There was also a living display of tidal life and that is still there.
3. The entire geology section is gone! I was shocked. The old academy had a great exhibit about the "Ring of Fire", of which California is part. Lots of great displays about volcanoes and earthquakes, including a big display about the 1906 Earthquake and an "earthquake simulation" room where the floor shook at the same intensity and duration as the 1906 earthquake. Now considering this is San Francisco where earthquakes are a reality not just something you read in books, and considering the new museum was built because of earthquake safety, it makes no sense to not have any exhibits about geology. It's a subject of great local importance!
4. The Wattis Hall of Anthropology is gone. Now admittedly this was not one of my favorite rooms, I usually skipped it because I am more interested in animals than humans. But it did have some nice examples of arts and crafts from native California tribes, etc.
5. The North American Hall of Birds and Mammals is gone. All the dioramas with taxidermied birds, bears, coyote, moose, cougar, buffalo, etc. All gone. They DID keep a similar hall full of taxidermied African mammals and birds. But they lost the animals that actually live in our own state and country. This is another weird decision to me. It seems like the old museum was more relevant to our local sciences here in California. The new museum focuses on Africa, Madagascar, Costa Rica, all these distant places.
6. The fish roundabout is gone. This was a huge donut-shaped tank that you could stand in the middle of and fish species who swim constantly and never rest would swim all around you. There were some really large specimens here including sharks. I don't know where they went.
7. The marine mammal exhibit is gone. The old aquarium had a few dolphins and harbor seals, which are now gone. I know there was always a lot of protest about keeping whales or dolphins in captivity so there used to be signs saying that they would only keep their current dolphins until they died (because they were born in captivity and could not be released to the wild) but they would not be replacing them with new wild-caught dolphins. So maybe those old dolphins died?
Ok so that's what is missing, now I wanted to know, what new things do they have and are they as good as what we lost?
The first thing I saw when I entered was the Philippine tidal lagoon and reef exhibit.
The lagoon has rays and sharks, and rays are one of my favorite fish to watch.
There was a cool leopard-spotted ray
Then I went through the African hall of mammals, which is pretty much the same as it was in the old Academy. The one difference is they have moved the African penguins (live ones) to this room, when they used to be in the aquarium. These guys are so fun to watch, all the little kids were especially entertained.
Then I went to the far left hall of the museum, which is shared by a Galapagos exhibit and a Madagascar exhibit. These take up a lot of floor space but it's all basically videos, still photos, and text to read. It is informative and educational but you could just read a book if you want text and photos. I have to say it's a bit boring, I want something a little more 3-D when I pay $25 to get into a museum. There are a few life sized models of Galapagos tortoises but otherwise it's just lots of photos and text. At this point I was rather disappointed with all the cool stuff that was missing and this is what they replace it with!
Then I saw the Foucault Pendulum which is something they saved from the old academy. I was glad to see it! I even got to see it knock over a peg.
Then I went to see the Planetarium show which was about looking for life in space and exo-planets. It was good but the recliner chairs are so comfortable I almost fell asleep in the dark. LOL
Then I went to see the alligator pit, now dubbed "The Swamp".
One nice touch is they saved the old railing from the old alligator pit, which features beautiful bronze seahorses.
The famous albino alligator doesn't look very happy. He is blond, so he sits on his rock all day and he doesn't go in the water because the female alligator and the turtles bite him!
Next I went over to the far right side of the museum, where there is a big hall devoted to climate change and ecology. More photos and text and videos. Yes I know it's important but honestly it was presented in a pretty boring way. I guess I am shallow, I want to see cool animals, not read a preachy textbook.
Next I went up to the second floor to watch a 3-D movie about bugs. They have a large screen, not Imax size but still pretty good for seeing a 3-D movie. That was fun and it's another opportunity to sit and rest for a little while, if you have been walking around all day.
Next I went into the much publicized Rainforest dome exhibit. Now this is what I'm talkin about! Two big thumbs up for the rainforest. Definitely save at least an hour just for this alone.
The dome has a spiral ramp around the edge which goes up to 3 levels. There are birds and butterflies flying loose and lots of cool animals in glass tanks. The second level is the best- that is Madagascar animals. Take some time to really watch the amazing reptiles and amphibians here. I saw a lot of people just rush by, they'd say "I can't find it" and they'd move on. Many of these animals are really well camouflaged in their exhibits but if you are patient you will find them. And oh my gosh they are so fascinating and entertaining! The Panther Chameleon for example was so cool. He was beautiful bright colors, he has creepy eyes that move in different directions, his feet are really neat, he walks super slow like a robot.
There was a big fat green caterpillar in the tank with him, which crawled right up the bottom of the branch the Chameleon was sitting on. Caterpillar crawled right over Chameleon's toes! I thought for sure he was going to be dinner. Then caterpillar crawled to the end of the branch, reared up and swayed back and forth right in front of Chameleon's face! By now a small crowd had gathered and we were all waiting to see that worm get et! He was practically begging to get et. We wanted to see Chameleon unfurl his long tongue and grab that cocky worm. But apparently Chameleon was not hungry that day. He just slooooowwwly reached out for another nearby branch and walked away from the worm.
The top level of the dome is Costa Rica, which is also very cool but I recommend the Madagascar level.
The exit from the dome is to take the elevator down the center to the basement, which houses the new Aquarium. I spent a LONG time at the Aquarium. There is a huge tank for the Philippine coral reef, and I got to see a feeding in that tank which means the fish are very lively. There are benches in front of this tank so you can really relax and be hypnotized by the gorgeous swirling colors and movement of all the tropical fish. I could also watch the Moon Jellies for hours. Jellyfish are natures Lava Lamp! They are so beautiful and graceful and just relaxing to watch, I'd love to have a tank of these at home. Then I saw something so bizarre and beautiful, a leafy seadragon. Actually they have a whole bunch of them. I had seen these on television but never in person. I love these guys! So that would have been an awesome day if it ended there but the best thing was still yet to come.
If you go to the Academy, make SURE you find the Burmese Vine Snakes in the aquarium. And make sure you spend some time watching them. Don't just spot one in a tree, say "ok I have seen that" and move along. Look towards the back of the tank near the floor, and you will see at least a dozen of these slender green snakes hanging upside down over a small pool of water. Their bodies are all curled into S-shaped curves, they hang by their tails from a branch and their heads are about 3-4 inches over the water. They stare at that water VERY intently. I watched them fascinated. "What are they all looking at?" I wondered. Well, there are teensy little fish in that pool. And these snakes eat the fish. They are the only arboreal snake in the world which eats fish! Thy do not swim, they aren't water snakes. They just hang there and wait for a little fishy to come close to the surface, and then STRIKE! I watched 6 or 7 of them catch little fish and eat them. The fish are still wiggling and flipping their tails as they are swallowed, and even afterwards the lump in the snakes throat is kind of squirming. I got disappointed by the Chameleon but the snakes delivered!
Any person who came by and couldn't find the snakes or only noticed the ones draped over the upper branches, I told them where to look to see the fishing snakes. They were all so fascinated once they slowed down and really looked. These little snakes are utterly fascinating to watch, they are rare and were only discovered in 2002. Before that no one believed any arboreal snakes ate a diet of fish. The exhibit at the Steinhart is the only place in the world they live in captivity.
More info about Burmese Vine Snakes
More info and a photo
video of one catching a fish
Burmese Vine Snakes WIN!
They were the stars of my visit.
The new cafe is very nice too, I had a snack of apple caramel bread pudding while watching a bigass fishtank they have facing the cafe.
I had originally planned to spend the day visiting both the Academy of Sciences and the De Young museum across the street, because the De Young has a luscious retrospective exhibit of Yves Saint Laurent fashions, 130 garments! But I spent so much time at the academy that I would have only had an hour or two left for the De Young, which is a waste. So I skipped it and I will go back another time when I can spend a full day at the De Young. I went to the Vivienne Westwood exhibit at the De Young last year and I arrived late in the day and really didn't have time to do it justice.
So my overall review is positive, there are a lot of old favorites missing but there is still plenty of neat stuff to look at. I'd recommend focusing your visit on the Aquarium and the Rainforest, especially if you have limited time. Those two areas have the most entertainment value and "oooh" and "eeew!" value.