From January 6 through February 7, 2014, Birch Aquarium’s kelp forest exhibit will be off display while minor repairs are made to the tank’s concrete structure. Our aquarists will also use this opportunity to freshen the exhibit’s look with new animals. We are grateful for your support so that when the exhibit reopens on February 8 [subject to change], visitors will enjoy an even better representation of Southern California’s kelp forests. Our popular kelp tank dive shows and web cam feeds will also resume at this time.
This is the first of three articles describing the construction project and its developments.
The largest tank at Birch Aquarium at Scripps is the 70,000-gallon kelp forest, located in the Hall of Fishes. Locals and visitors alike enjoy watching leopard sharks, garibaldi, moray eels, and much more swim among the swaying kelp.
In spring 2013, a small, slow-leaking crack developed in the tank’s back wall (read on to find out why). Structural engineers confirmed the tank was still safe, but that work was needed to repair the crack to prevent further problems. Staff at Birch Aquarium consulted construction experts who felt comfortable that affixing a temporary concrete patch would allow time to plan a high-quality repair. So,eight months of preparation began. A company specializing in the repair of concrete aquarium tanks was consulted to assess the leak’s source.
At 280 tons, the seawater in the kelp forest display exerts incredible pressure on the tank’s window and walls. The walls are constructed of sealed, 16-inch-thick concrete reinforced by epoxy-coated steel rebar underneath. But breaches in the rebar’s protective film allow seawater to reach the metal. Seawater—carrying oxygen, carbon dioxide, and salt—reacts with steel and gradually causes it to break down. The resulting rust expands to occupy more space than the initial steel (up to eight times the original volume), generating pressure that pushes outwards on the concrete. And voila, a crack forms.
In January, construction efforts will fix the leak and halt further corrosion. Cracks will be dried and sealed using a high-pressure epoxy adhesive. In addition, zinc anodes will be installed to divert corrosion away from the rebar. Because zinc rusts more readily than steel, rebar will be protected from further corrosion. Maritime and transportation industries widely use this method (known as “cathodic protection“) to protect boats and bridges. For more information on zinc anodes: http://dsc.discovery.com/tv-shows/dirty-jobs/videos/zinc-anodes.htm.
Sacrificial anodes (light colored rectangular handle-shaped objects) mounted “on the fly” for corrosion protection of a metal jacket structure. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA-2.5
To be effective, anodes must have direct contact with rusting rebar, so drilling holes into specific areas of the tank’s walls is required. The kelp forest tank must be drained to do this work properly. Draining the tank, of course, requires that the animals and seaweeds be removed. Since June, our aquarists have been gradually moving select fish to different tanks with appropriate habitat in the aquarium. For example, California halibut and shovelnose guitarfish were moved to ElasmoBeach, where they now have more sand to bury themselves in.
The rest of the animals currently on display in the kelp forest tank will be moved to temporary tanks onsite but off exhibit. After a month of behind-the-scenes pampering, most of the fishes, including the giant sea bass, will be returned to the kelp forest exhibit. A few may be relocated to other Birch Aquarium tanks or transferred to partner aquariums.
In our next post in this series, it’s “moving day” for our fishes!
- Kate Jirik
By Audrey Evans, Whale Watching Coordinator
How many miles have you traveled in 2013? 100? 1000? 5000? How about 10,000? That’s how far an Eastern Gray Whale travels each year on average. Without the aid of planes, trains, or cars – just whale tail power – these travelers make their annual round-trip trek from feeding grounds in the Arctic to overwintering breeding grounds off Baja California, Mexico.
While December is certainly a popular month to visit family and friends, San Diegans can skip the airport and get a glimpse of these marine giants practically right in their own backyards. As many locals know, winter is the best time for whale watching and now is the time we begin to see these coastal migrators on the southbound leg of their journey. As always, Birch Aquarium is in on the action as we collaborate with Flagship Cruises and Events on our 14th season of whale watching together to get you out on the open ocean and looking for whales.
Last season, our program guests aboard Flagship’s Marietta observed a total of 570 gray whales, 40 fin whales, 19 minke whales, 18 humpbacks and 5 blue whales. Statistically speaking therefore, we averaged nearly six whales a day and that doesn’t even count the tens of thousands of dolphins darting around the boat and flaunting their acrobatic skills throughout the season!
Join Birch Aquarium naturalists and Flagship Cruises & Events December 26 through April 13. Cruises are twice daily and leave from Flagship Cruises & Events (990 North Harbor Drive). You can download a coupon for $5 off at Birch Aquarium’s website. Whether you are visiting San Diego or you’re a local, you don’t need to travel far from the city to witness one of the largest mammal migrations on our planet!
Happy Whale Watching!
The Upward Bound program at Harvey Mudd College has been helping low-income high school students who are considered “potential first-generation college students” in the East San Gabriel Valley to “generate the skill and motivation necessary for success in college” for more than 30 years. Every summer, two high school students from the program spend six weeks at Birch Aquarium under our aquarists’ supervision. They learn about biology, how to care for the fish, and other skills associated with aquatic husbandry.
We blogged about this program earlier this year, when our head aquarists Fernando Nosratpour and Leslee Matsushige were honored as recipients of a 2013 UC San Diego Diversity Award. Leslee and Fernando have been working with Upward Bound and its students for more than 20 years.
Earlier this summer, we received an email from Raul Diaz, a former participant in Upward Bound at Birch Aquarium. Since finishing the program, Raul not only went on to college, but completed his masters and doctoral degrees and is now a researcher and college professor. We asked him to tell us about his experience at Birch Aquarium, and here’s what he had to say:
Raul Diaz (middle) with Birch Aquarium aquarist Fernando Nosratpour in 1997.
In what year did you participate in Upward Bound?
I graduated from Baldwin Park High School in 1999, so my internship at Birch Aquarium must have been the summer of 1997! Wow, that was a while ago.
What did you do during your internship?
I was excited that Birch Aquarium at Scripps allowed me to help set up a display for that summer’s Shark Week. I developed skills doing literature searches and setting up displays for the aquarium. I was also trained by several of the staff on how to feed a variety of invertebrate and vertebrate species. I made a lot of “Krill Shakes!”
What was your favorite part of the program?
My favorite part of the program was that the staff at Birch Aquarium trusted me to do my job independently. I gained a lot of self-esteem and it motivated me to learn more on my own. It was really nice to learn about the biodiversity in the marine realm and interact with the public.
How did your time at Birch Aquarium inspire you for a future career in science and/or education?
My internship prepared me for working at the interface between science and the public. I later had another internship at the Smithsonian Institution, which was comparable to Birch, and I am currently a faculty member at a university as well as being associated with a museum. Doing research, publishing, maintaining live animals in captivity, and reaching out to the public continue to be the mainstay of my own professional program.
What have you done since that summer?
I went on to get my Bachelors from UC Berkeley, my Masters from the University of Kansas and my Ph.D. from the University of Kansas Medical Center (with my research from the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, MO). I am currently an Assistant Professor at La Sierra University, adjunct faculty at Loma Linda University Medical School, and Research Associate at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles in the Division of Herpetology. I explore reptile/amphibian biodiversity and the evolution of vertebrate body plans. I have a lot of fun in my career and continue to be excited about all organisms (including marine organisms, although I don’t work with them at the moment).
Raul Diaz and head aquarist Fernando Nosratpour in 2013.
Part of our mission at Birch Aquarium is to provide ocean sicence education to the public. We love hearing stories from visitors who have been insipred by thier visit to the aquarium to pursue careers in science or participate in citizen science. How have your experiences at aquariums or museums inspired you?
We asked the staff at Birch Aquarium to share what they are thankful for this holiday season. Here is some of what they had to say:
I am thankful…
…to share my love of marine science with our visitors. It’s such a gift to see their faces light up when learning about our planet and its ocean creatures! – Sheri Knox, Administration
…for our baby seadragons. Not only are they adorable, but they’re helping reduce the need to collect these amazing fish from the wild. – Addie Eure, Marketing
…for the many generous volunteers and donors who make Birch Aquarium’s programs possible, especially our K-12 programs! – Michele Bart, Development
We’re thankful for all of our amazing volunteers!
…when Scripps scientists join us for our monthly SEA Days events. It’s amazing when we can engage everyone, from little kids to their grandparents. The scientists have an opportunity to share their specialties and Birch Aquarium helps to interpret their work. – Craig Klampe, Visitor Services
…to use carpentry in support of Birch Aquarium’s many wonderful exhibits. Just last week, we completed a colorful display to showcase winning artwork of an ocean-themed K-12 art and poetry contest. Installing an art show is like unwrapping “eye candy.” After browsing the art, some families thanked us for creating the exhibit. That’s a rewarding response! – Kevin Stephens, Exhibits
…that guests have a unique aquarium to go to with their families and enjoy the wonders of this Earth. – Danny Beckwith, Education
…for the plants, plankton, and seaweeds that make our air breathable! – Leorah Gavidor, Book & Giftshop
…for the generous individuals that provide financial assistance to that kids can experience the ocean through our camps. – Charina Layman, Education
Summer Learning Adventure Camp at Birch Aquarium
…to work with dedicated and knowledgeable educators who shower attention on every group of students. After one of our education programs, students leave happy and interested in being stewards of the ocean. – Art Smart, Education
…to hear excitement from students. When they say “I love learning about this!” or “I want to be a scientist,” that’s when I get excited, too!” – Sarah Morgan-Sickler, Education
…to Birch Aquarium at Scripps’s dedicated group of staff and volunteers. Our staff shares their passions for education, conservation, and the ocean every day with the public, and we simply could not do what we do without all our wonderful volunteers. – Nigella Hillgarth, Executive Director
A very Happy Thanksgiving!
— Compiled by Kate Jirik
By Leslee Matsushige, Birch Aquarium co-curator
In late September, the first brood hatched from Birch Aquarium’s Seadragon Propagation Program. Learn more about the program and find out how the aquarium acquired the male weedy with eggs on its tail.
During this critical time in their young lives, the baby seadragons are kept in our special seadragon breeding center. Since we know that people are very excited about these little ones, here’s an update on their development:
The baby weedy seadragons were approximately 2 cm (or 3/4″) in length when they hatched. One of the babies hatched a week before the other six, and since we could see the baby’s yolk sac still attached, we knew it was a bit premature. Now, we’re happy to report that the preemie weedy seadragon is the same size as its siblings.
Today, the babies have nearly quadrupled in size to about 7.5 cm (or 3″) and their famous appendages are developing and growing larger. Weedy seadragons grow quickly in their first year, and will be fully grown within two years. They can grow to 45 cm (or 17″) in length.
When the babies first hatched, they ate larval brine shrimp. As the seadragons grew, their appetite became too strong for the larval shrimp, so we fed them live mysis shrimp generously donated to us by Ray Lewis of Aquatic Indicators in Florida. At first, the baby seagradons ate shrimp that were only one or two days old. Now that the seadragons are larger, they dine on 4- or 5-day-old live mysis.
We are keeping the young weedy seadragons in a kreisel, or a special circular tank with circular water flow. The tank’s design makes it easier for the seadragons to capture their free-swimming food and swim with a slight current that simulates their natural habitat. When the seadragons are bigger they’ll be moved to a larger tank with a similar circular flow to give them more room to groove.
Leslee has been blogging about her experience with weedy seadragon breeding for over a year. To catch up, read about the Seadragon Propagation Program and check out Leslee’s trip to Australia to study these spectacular animals in the wild.
This Halloween, we’re searching for the spookiest animals at Haunted Birch Aquarium. To us, “spooky” is not quite the same as “scary” or “creepy.” Spooky weaves mystery and curiosity together. Something a little eerie grabs your attention, and you pause long enough to wonder, how can that be? These animals may or may not fit the bill, but they’ve got us asking the question.
Giant California Sea Cucumber ©NOAA via Wikimedia commons
Sea cucumbers. With sausage-shaped bodies and a preoccupation with extracting food from sand, sea cucumbers do not exactly strike fear into the hearts of would-be-predators. But animals might benefit from considering, “trick or treat?” before taking a bite. Sea cucumbers not only have false spines to visually deter predators, but their bodies produce bad-tasting detergent molecules, called saponins (1). Sea cucumbers can even eject certain internal organs, such as their intestines or gills. Interestingly, a sea cucumber either ejects its organs from the head end or rear end, depending on the species. The organs grow back, which may be spooky, but it’s also incredible!
Octopuses. Some people find the eyes of octopuses a bit spooky. Might it be the slit pupils, which look like a cat’s? This pupil shape has some advantages over the round shape that humans and many other land animals have. Slit pupils can open fully for better night vision as well as block excess light during the day. Octopuses cannot see in color, but scientists recently discovered they have polarized vision (2). Like Superman and his x-ray vision, we might consider this one of the octopus’ superpowers.
Sponges. Don’t underestimate sponges, for they have superpowers all their own. In 1907, H.V. Wilson published findings that could be mistaken for science fiction. Researchers pressed a sponge through a fine mesh, breaking the animal down into its individual cells. But rather than killing it, the sponge’s cells survived and began to seek one another out, reorganizing and restructuring themselves. After a couple of weeks, the entire sponge had regenerated into its original structure.
Not so spooky, you say? Well, think of it this way—how would you react if you saw a giraffe reduced to a pile of individual cells and then pop back up as a giraffe again? You’d either faint or think you were dreaming, because other animals can’t do this. Not earthworms nor eagles nor eels! True tissues can’t reassemble….only the resplendently spooky (often underestimated) sponge can, living in its uniqueness at the malleable level of the cell.
False ladybugs. Sightings of this adorable species are highest in late October. This ladybug mimic is not yet mobile in its first year of life and instead uses its unbearable cuteness to attract people. To communicate, the false ladybug may wave its arms or make short vocalizations, often accompanied by spittle. This wetness may pose a slight danger to costume fabrics, so a shoulder towel is recommended while trick-or-treating.
— Kate Jirik
Join us for Haunted Birch Aquarium: Shipwrecked! this Friday and Saturday, October 25 and 26. This night of family fun includes close encounters with glowing sea creatures, trick-or-treating in the aquarium, and a chance to BOO-gie down with Billy Lee and the Swamp Critters. Come dressed for the occasion—we can’t wait to see your costumes! For more information or to buy tickets, visit: http://aquarium.ucsd.edu/Education/Public_Programs/Special_Events/Haunted_Aquarium/
(1) Van Dyck et al 2011. The triterpene glycosides of Holothuria forskali: usefulness and efficiency as a chemical defense mechanism against predatory fish. Journal of Experimental Biology 214:1347-1356. doi: 10.1242/jeb.050930
(2) Courage 2012 (http://tinyurl.com/78xepuu) citing Temple et al 2012 (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2012.01.010)
By Kate Jirik, Birch Aquarium naturalist and educator
Thursday, August 22nd
It’s 9:30 AM, and I am joining a very special Birch Aquarium animal for breakfast. On August 14th, a chambered nautilus (Nautilus belauensis) hatched for the first time in the aquarium’s history. Few aquariums, worldwide, have been able to hatch one of these sensitive nautilus eggs.
Photo: A close-up of the chambered nautilus hatchling (approximately one inch across). Unlike its close relatives, squid and octopus, chambered nautiluses have a thick, external shell and about 90 suckerless tentacles.
Today is an important milestone for the newborn: it has been eating for one week.
Behind-the-scenes in Birch Aquarium’s food preparation kitchen, I am welcomed by smells of frozen fish and squid. The nautilus’ primary caretaker, Birch Aquarium intern Alex Frolova, is busy preparing the nautilus’ morning meal. “We’re feeding the nautilus twice a day. It is not known what baby nautiluses eat in the wild, so we’re feeding a variety of foods to meet his dietary needs.”
No larger than a quarter, the baby nautilus is too small to know whether it is male or female–but Alex finds that calling the nautilus “he” comes more natually than “it”. She pulls a large knife out of a drawer and–as if mincing a clove of garlic–chops bits of krill, shrimp, clam, and squid tentacles into tiny pieces. Cut a grain of rice in half, that’s how small we’re talking.
Photo: To meet its dietary requirements, the nautilus hatchling is being offered different types of food. Left-to-right: krill, smaller shrimp, clam, and squid tentacles.
Photo: Birch Aquarium intern aquarist Alex Frolova prepares food for the newly-hatched chambered nautilus.
We walk down a long, narrow corridor carrying the seafood delicacies. The low humming of water pumps ushers us to the tropical tanks, where chambered nautilus and other Indo-Pacific animals are housed.
Alex begins removing plastic panels that cover the top and sides of the hatchling’s tank. These opaque panels keep the tank dark to mimic light conditions that nautiluses experience in the ocean, where they live on reefs between 300 and 1,000 feet. Panels also prevent the hatchling from being startled when people walk by. In this moment, though, removing the panels seems like an unveiling.
“He is usually sitting on the bottom,” Alex says, setting the front panel aside. Sure enough, the nautilus is resting on the bottom. Perhaps dazed by the light, the hatchling whirls around a few times like a coin spinning on its side.
Next, Alex pours krill juices into the tank. She explains that juices help to prime the nautilus’ sense of smell and alert him that food is coming. A plume of greasy krill oil sinks to the bottom. To my surprise, the nautilus jerks sideways and within three seconds, rockets from the bottom of the tank to the surface! Alex has the nautilus’ attention.
Time to load the feeding pole. Basically, it’s a stick with a rigid piece of fishing line on the end. Spearing a tiny piece of food on the fishing line allows Alex to hold it in front of the nautilus’ mouth. Reaching into the tank, Alex cradles the nautilus between three fingers of her left hand while positioning the feeding pole with her right. “It’s a lot like feeding a baby bird. I place the food directly in front of his mouth, and he just opens wide and bites at it.”
Photo: Here, the nautilus is eating a piece of clam off the tip of fishing line. So small – only slighly larger than Alex’s fingertips!
Understanding the nautilus’ behavior requires attentiveness and patience. For example, the first time Alex fed the hatchling, it took 1 ½ hours! Seven days later, Alex is pleased that the nautilus is feeding well.
She gently releases the nautilus’ shell. The delicate animal wobbles slightly, but hovers and clings to the food on its own. If all goes well, the nautilus will continue to eat regularly. The aquarists hope that in the weeks ahead the hatchling will also begin searching for food. Right now, they’re not taking any chances.
After a couple of minutes, the nautilus loses its grip and sinks to the bottom. Alex re-evaluates her strategy. “I think it’s getting easier for me just to hand feed him.” She goes on to explain how she has been trying different methods: holding vs. not holding the shell, feeding with the pole vs. her hand. She picks up a piece of clam and places it in front of the nautilus’ mouth. “You’ve got to hold onto it, buddy,” Alex says, encouragingly. I find that I’m right there with her, rooting the nautilus on.
This nautilus will need cheering if experiences of other aquariums provide insight into what to expect. For reasons not understood, nautilus that hatch in captivity do not typically live longer than a year. (More on this in a forthcoming post.) Right now, the focus is on little successes–a week, a day, or even a meal at a time.
This has been a successful breakfast. The nautilus ate three pieces of clam. “So far, he seems to prefer clam to the squid tentacles, perhaps because it’s less rubbery, less tough.”
There you go…the chambered nautilus equivalent of mashed banana.
 There are unconfirmed, annecdotal reports of nautilus hatchlings being raised to adulthood in Japan.
 Week #2 update: Alex reports that the nautilus hatchling has also begun eating small krill regularly.
High Tech Middle Media Arts teacher Erika Reed (center) and her students get ready to snorkel over Hobihu Reef in Taiwan.
By Fernando Nosratpour, interim co-curator
In 2012, Birch Aquarium at Scripps and our sister aquarium, the National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium (NMMBA) in Taiwan, were awarded a highly competitive Museums Connect grant to connect youth from both countries to each other and to the ocean.
Awarded by the American Association of Museums and the U.S. State Department, the grant brought together middle school students from Taiwan and San Diego to study coral reefs and also learn about each other’s culture. They were called Coral Reef Ambassadors.
A few of the participating students also had the amazing opportunity to visit each other’s country and explore habitats in person. In late March, I joined High Tech Middle Media Arts teacher Erika Reed and three of her students for an incredible journey to Kaohsiung, Taiwan.
In Taiwan, we met with Dr. Tony Fan, a coral researcher at NMMBA who took us to Pingtung County, where the aquarium and research center are located. We visited a local tide pool where an old, dead coral reef once existed. We also snorkeled at two other coral reefs, a first-time experience for some of the students.
Convict Surgeonfish grazing at Nanbay Reef in Taiwan.
The corals and fishes at Nanbay Reef were beautiful and a great opportunity for us to see a live coral reef. The students, as well as myself, had a blast. It was a sunny day, the water was warm (~78 degrees F), and the corals and fishes were colorful. It was really hard leaving the reef!
We went hiking in Kenting National Park and observed some fossilized coral reefs that were hundreds of feet above sea level. The natural beauty of the reefs and forest were very inspiring. The ocean views were spectacular.
The students went hiking in Kenting National Park in Taiwan where they saw fossilized reefs and tropical plants.
But just as inspiring, and even more so, were the visits with students at Checheng and Hengchun Jr. High Schools. We met with students, teachers, and principals at both schools. Erika Reed was able to observe and compare the Taiwanese school system with that of High Tech Middle Media Arts in San Diego.
What a welcome we had! Students came out of classrooms to greet us. At Checheng Jr. High we were treated to a dance performance and Kung Fu presentation. At Hengchun Jr. High we had a great time making crafts with special education students and teachers. The students treated us so well—it was hard to leave!
In a classroom at Chechung Jr. High School, one of the High Tech Middle School students prepares to give a talk about her life in San Diego.
A great visit with students and teachers in a special education class at Chechung Jr. High. Showing off our tie-dye prints that we made during our visit. (Birch Aquarium’s Fernando Nosratpour is standing in the back right.)
During our 10-day stay, our San Diego students visited the National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium and learned about aquarium life support systems and coral propagation. They also gave presentations at the junior high schools and shared with their Taiwanese friends a little about their lives in the United States.
In addition, we had the opportunity to try new and exotic foods throughout our visit, definitely a part of the trip we all enjoyed.
Our trip ended in Taipei where both countries’ Coral Reef Ambassadors gave a presentation at the Ministry of Education. In attendance were the Minister of Education of Taiwan, the director of Cultural Affairs of the American Institute in Taiwan, as well as a number of news organizations. That same afternoon we were invited to the American Institute in Taiwan, where we were treated to tea and a visit by the director.
The Coral Reef Ambassadors gather with officials at the American Institute in Taiwan.
Overall, the trip was very successful. We even had quite a bit of press coverage. On our flight back home, we saw a newspaper with an article and photo of our press conference in Taipei!
With the state of coral reefs in danger in many parts of the world, it’s important to involve our youth. This program allowed them to see corals in the wild, to understand the problems they face, to learn a bit about science, to learn how to propagate corals, and to understand aquarium systems that keep them alive in captivity. Additionally, these students were required to give public talks, which gave them valuable opportunities to express themselves about important issues.
Press clipping from the Coral Reef Ambassadors’ visit in Taiwan.
On top of all this—and most importantly—students from both countries got to know each other and create bonds of friendship. International cooperation is necessary when it comes to saving coral reefs. Hopefully, this experience will influence the decisions that these students make when choosing what they want to study, the career path they take, how they treat the environment, and how they relate to and work with others.
As Coral Reef Ambassadors, the students from San Diego and Taiwan will continue to share their knowledge and experience of coral reefs with their families, their schools, and their communities.
Milou van der Lans, a Dutch high school student, recently completed an international internship at Birch Aquarium at Scripps.
By Milou van der Lans, high school intern
Sea stars take their stomachs out and make sea star milkshakes of their food.
Sea urchins can give hugs.
Jellyfish are not fish; seahorses are. Male seahorses get pregnant.
I could continue for hours telling you all the things I learned at Birch Aquarium at Scripps in only three weeks. My name is Milou van der Lans and I’m a 16-year-old Dutch high school student. As a part of the bilingual program I follow in school, I got the opportunity to do a foreign internship and was lucky to be welcomed at Birch Aquarium!
My internship consisted of working in both the Education Department as well as with the aquarists. In the Education Department I helped in the classrooms, working with a lot of kids. And every class includes time when children get to interact with live animals, so I also had close contact with these animals every week, learning how to care for them before, during, and after classes.
I got even closer to the animals while working in the Husbandry Department This “behind-the-scenes” work included feeding animals, cleaning tanks, and making sure all the animals were in the perfect living conditions. I was able to learn about many different parts of an aquarist’s job.
I was also given the responsibility of assisting with a specific project in the Education Department: “Explore It” activities on the floor of the Galleria, during which visitors of all ages can learn about science through practical experiments. My project was creating energy with wind turbines, and I spent a lot of time developing and improving the activity for visitors.
Being an intern at Birch Aquarium has been the most wonderful experience. Not only do I know much more about marine biology, volunteering has also improved me as person. I feel more comfortable speaking in public and I learned how to connect with people of all ages.
The American culture has amazed me. In only three weeks I feel like I’ve adopted many local habits, partly thanks to my lovely colleagues. I enjoyed every second at Birch Aquarium. The extraordinary exhibits with such extensive and interesting information along with the exceptional expertise and kindness of the staff have resulted in an experience I will never forget!
By Kate Jirik, Birch Aquarium science educator and naturalist
Birch Aquarium at Scripps is taking gradual steps toward sustainable business practices. Our most recent success involved upgrading 150 exhibit lights to energy-efficient light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs. Find out why this facility improvement means so much to us.
Exhibit carpenter Kevin Stephens has been darting back and forth between Birch Aquarium’s exhibit workshop and his desk for the past five minutes. Each time Kevin ducks into his office, he reemerges cradling an armful of empty lightbulb boxes and a couple of bulbs he hasn’t shown me yet. We begin to adorn an acrylic-topped workbench with flood-lights and spotlights, lining the bulbs up to compare new and old designs.
A selection of current and past lightbulbs used by Birch Aquarium. The newest LED bulb (far left) weighs less and is more energy efficient than the halogen bulb (far right). The three bulbs in the center are different generation models of LEDs (newer, left; older, right).
Kevin steps back into his office and rummages through a cardboard box for one last bulb. “Now, this is an early-style LED. Imagine trying to support twenty of those on one lighting track,” he postulates, handing me the weighty 1.6 pound bulb. “We couldn’t use LEDs initially. They were too heavy and didn’t produce enough light for our displays.”
Upgrading to LED lighting has been a gradual process for Birch Aquarium. Over the past five years, the aquarium has switched to increasingly energy-efficient lightbulbs. Energy-sucking 90-watt incandescent bulbs were first replaced with 75-watt halogens, then 23-watt compact fluorescents (CFLs). However, Birch Aquarium exhibit developers were disappointed by the gray light that the CFLs produced and hoped that LED technology would soon catch up with their artistic ambitions. They didn’t have to wait long. “We got excited when we learned that UC San Diego had acquired some money that could help improve our exhibits,” Kevin says. He hands me an example of one type of LED bulb which now illuminates the aquarium’s exhibit galleries.
Exhibit carpenter Kevin Stephens holds up one of the LED light bulbs now in Birch Aquarium exhibit galleries.
Don’t let the stylish look of this LED fool you—it is a remarkable advance in energy-efficiency.
By rotating a powerband ring, users can select from three power level settings (10, 14, or 16 watts) to choose the amount of light that suits their needs. Weighing less than a pound, this LED model is used in 100 of Birch Aquarium’s 150 light fixtures. The remaining 50 fixtures in the Hall of Fishes use an LED model that consumes even less energy—a mere five watts! These LEDs are cutting Birch Aquarium’s energy use by 35,000 kilowatt-hours per year. That’s enough electrical energy to power 4.2 homes for a year!
Painting exhibit spaces with light
Interior lighting creates an aesthetic experience for Birch Aquarium visitors. Lighting effects are used to create a mood, soften transitions between displays, or highlight special objects. Birch Aquarium exhibit developers take pride that new LED lights are providing an enhanced experience for guests. Each LED bulb has three donut-shaped diodes, which disperse light where our staff needs it. “I am impressed with the improved optics,” Kevin observes. “Each diode is like a prism.” The LEDs produce bright white tones, which better match outdoor light conditions. This brings out subtleties in exhibit photographs and gives other graphics a crisper look.
The bright white tones of the new LED lights bring out the vibrancy and details of Birch Aquarium’s displays. Courtesy of Katchen Weaver, EcoGreen Lighting.
The latest model of LED bulb has an ingenious feature: pen point-sized holes in the lens (see photo below). These holes draw air through the bulb and keep it cool, allowing engineers to develop lighter, thinner heat-dissipating ribs on the back of the bulb. Not only do these new LEDs reduce weight on ceiling light tracks, but they keep exhibit spaces cooler, thereby preventing the air conditioning system from being overtaxed. “When we needed to replace the halogens, it was like playing hot potato. We needed a rag to handle them. These new LEDs are easier on the user.”
The holes in the lens of this LED lightbulb help to draw air through it and keep it cool. Also, did you notice the three donut-shaped diodes?
The curved ribs on the back of this LED lightbulb help to dissipate heat.
Saving time and money
Using LEDs is not just energy smart, it’s business smart. More like a no-brainer. Kevin sits down at his desk and thumbs through a stack of manila file folders to find a copy of Birch Aquarium’s recent energy-use assessment. He hands me a sheet of paper with key information highlighted in black boxes at the bottom. I begin reading: Average electrical savings: 77.5%. Energy savings per year: $6,000. Total savings over 5 years: $41,000; over 10 years: $94,000.
“People are often surprised by the amount of energy savings from simply changing how existing systems operate,” says Anna Levitt, UC San Diego’s assistant energy manager. “The energy savings are huge!” Anna would know. Through campus-wide lighting retrofits, her team has helped UC San Diego save an astounding $6.8 million in the past three years (2009-2012). “Because it is a new technology, [LED bulbs] cost more to buy up front. But you have to look at it as a long-term investment,” Anna advises.
Many businesses are doing just that: taking additional costs into account, such as energy use and bulb replacement. LEDs beat incandescents and CFLs every time. Birch Aquarium’s new LED bulbs will last at least five years–that’s five times longer than a CFL and 41 times longer than an incandescent bulb (imagine having to purchase and install a bulb once versus 41 times). Some extreme LEDs have a projected bulb life of 100,000 hours, meaning that if you left a light on without ever turning it off, it could still last 11 years. And with average use? Almost three decades. With more manufacturers recognizing the benefits of LEDs, prices continue to drop. “The price has definitely come down since I began investigating LEDs for UC San Diego,” Anna recalls. “We’re starting to think of them as a standard practice-technology for the campus.”
The bottom line re-envisioned
LED lighting enhances the beauty of museum galleries. Exhibit staff no longer need to scramble up and down ladders every five to seven months to change out “hot potato bulbs.” Compared to other types of bulbs, LEDs waste little energy as heat—they light homes and offices, not heat them. Businesses save money by reducing their energy costs. Another important benefit is that LEDs don’t contain mercury—a drawback of CFLs, which need to be disposed of as toxic waste. And, close to the heart of Birch Aquarium, energy-efficient lightbulbs reduce the amount of fossil fuels burned to generate electricity, helping to mitigate climate change and increasingly acidic oceans. Curbing carbon dioxide and other harmful emissions also reduces air and water pollution.
People sometimes assume “sustainability means sacrifice,” but that’s a mistake. Energy-efficient business practices are a win-win-win strategy, yielding profits while benefiting people and the planet. Of course, using technology to relieve the pressure we exert on natural systems is only part of the solution. But watching the creative strides that people are making in this direction is thrilling. To see scientists and engineers working through ideas, eliminating what doesn’t work and testing what might… What simple yet elegant innovations will make our lives better? The lives of other species better? And how many of those innovations will come dressed, like a lightbulb with cooling lens holes, in understated yet ingenious fashion?
Center for Sustainable Energy, California
San Diego Gas & Electric
Pogue, David. “New reasons to change light bulbs.” New York Times, 20 March 2013.
 Assessment reflects 6% per year cost of energy increase and bulb replacement.
 Examples: http://ledsmagazine.com/news/9/10/5 & http://www.prweb.com/releases/2012/10/prweb9965384.htm
 Birch Aquarium’s lighting upgrade will prevent 26 metric tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted each year.
 Often referred to as the triple bottom line, a term coined by John Elkington in 1994. Analysis of this and other sustainable development models helps people to consider the dynamics among economics, environment, and society.