CA Academy of Sciences' Steinhart Aquarium turns 100. Here's a look at its century-long history

ByDan Ashley and Tim Didion KGO logo
Wednesday, November 29, 2023
California Academy of Sciences' Steinhart Aquarium turns 100
2023 marked the 100th anniversary of the California Academy of Sciences' Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- This year marked the 100th anniversary of the California Academy of Sciences' Steinhart Aquarium. As the exhibit continues to celebrate a century in San Francisco, researchers are already looking ahead to a new era of challenges and discovery - and drawing on lessons from the past for the next 100 years.

When librarian Rebekah Kim looks back over a century of history at the Steinhart Aquarium, she sees the kind of evolution even Charles Darwin couldn't have dreamed of.

"It was the wild, Wild West. I don't think anyone knew," Kim said.

It started with its birth in the roaring 20s as an aquatic attraction for crowds visiting the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Within a decade, the Steinhart's collection would expand - and grow far more exotic.

VIDEO: Stanford researchers propose string of small marine sanctuaries to combat climate change

As climate change forces marine migration, Stanford researchers have identified areas off California and Mexico that might act as safe zones.

"In 1934, the academy goes on an expedition to the Galapagos, and they do transport back fishes," Kim said. "We have these pictures that are amazing. And they keep them alive. And they bring them back on this yacht. And depending on the director, the kinds of animals that are featured sort of shift. This would have been the only way for people to have seen these things. So it was like everything was sort of exotic, unique."

Many count director Earl Harald among the most colorful directors. He helped introduce unique and popular animals, including Butterball, an injured manatee rescued from a fish market.

"Earl Herald was really into just showcasing any animal - like he was really into bringing in all animals, and especially marine mammals, so he had a soft spot for manatees, dolphins, blind river dolphins from Pakistan," Kim explained. "He really wanted people that draw people in by seeing these animals they would not have seen anywhere else."

VIDEO: Meet Methuselah, the world's oldest living aquarium fish at Academy of Sciences

Meet Methuselah, the world's oldest living aquarium fish at California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

Over the decades, future directors like John McCosker would pique the public's interest in other creatures like great white sharks and the expanding world of ocean science. From African penguins to tropical sea life, the aquarium's collection continued to amaze visitors with new discoveries. But now looking forward to the next 100 years, the Steinhart's ongoing mission could become even more critical as the world begins to confront challenges brought on by climate change.

"Over the past say 50 years, zoos and aquariums have really pivoted from exotic creatures to being conservation organizations. And for us really the most critical conservation issue - what's paramount, is climate change," Bart Shepherd, senior director at the Steinhart Aquarium said.

When he's not overseeing the aquariums, he's often conducting field research. We met him shortly after his return from an expedition, documenting plastic pollution along coral reefs in the Indian Ocean.

"We've actually done global surveys of plastics, looking at the difference between shallow reefs and what we call the Twilight Zone reefs, which are coral reefs are found about 200 to 500 feet deep. And what we've seen is that there's actually more plastic on these deeper reefs," Shepherd explained.

VIDEO: Experts explain why salmon run seeing record numbers, sizes in parts of Bay Area

Bay Area waterways are seeing incredible numbers and sizes of Chinook salmon. Some of them are being seen in areas right by homes and major roads.

Shepherd points to other cutting-edge restoration projects as a critical part of Steinhart's ongoing mission. The Coral Regeneration Lab is one of the few in the country able to spawn living coral, to potentially repair damaged reefs. A separate Sea Star Breeding program could someday help restore threatened species off the Bay Area coast. Still, other research teams are working on restoring damaged kelp forests, and more.

"I think that's one of the strengths of the academy, is we've got this world-class aquarium with really talented, passionate people. Scientists who study genetics, that study taxonomy, and systematics, study the ecology and the role of their target organisms that they play in the planet. There's so much to learn still," Shepherd believes.

For Kim, it's a history that is still being written, as she works to document one century of discovery, that's now leading to another.

"Also to remember the people that were here that helped build this place. I think that's like the fun part of my job," Kim said, laughing.

Few have actually experienced the century's worth of history at Steinhart. The one exception is Methuselah, believed to be the oldest living aquarium fish in the world. Late this year, researchers used DNA to estimate the Australian Lungfish's age -- 93 years old.

Now Streaming 24/7 Click Here

If you're on the ABC7 News app, click here to watch live