This year, the Aquarium of the Pacific turned 25, and along with its anniversary celebration, which runs through December, came a re-envisioned Southern California Gallery, offering a peek into the diverse “neighborhoods” that make up our nearby ocean.

Since the gallery first opened in July, over 423,100 people have visited the aquarium through the end of September, getting a chance to view more than 10 new exhibits and three dozen local species ranging from the California two-spot octopus and leopard and horn sharks to California scorpionfish, California spiny lobsters, and California’s state marine fish, the Garibaldi.

“When it comes to re-envisioning the space, it was really about what are the stories we can tell about this space and who are the characters,” said Emily Yam, director of learning and public engagement at the aquarium.

Behind each exhibit and its inhabitants is, in fact, a story. They include the large sea bass, found in the Casino Point exhibit, an endangered species that’s the first of its kind to be hatched in an aquarium setting, and the red abalone, whose cousin, white abalones, are growing at the aquarium and being reared until large enough to outplant in the ocean, Yam said.

The Southern California Gallery highlights not only species that are endangered or vanishing, but also the opportunities that exist, Yam said.

“The key thing about conservation work is we can’t protect the things that we don’t care about,” Yam said.

Much like the ways people connect to animals like giant pandas or whales, and rally around them as a result, the gallery aims to show people the various creatures that are right in our backyard, and that are also interesting and important, Yam said.

The Aquarium of the Pacific’s reimagined Southern California Gallery features over 10 exhibits and more than three dozen species. It aims to tell the story of the diverse “neighborhoods” in the local ocean. Photo by Tess Kazenoff.

Two of the exhibits highlight the underwater habitats off Catalina, including the Casino Point exhibit, which, according to Yam, offers viewers the image you would see if you could teleport underwater and open your eyes in Southern California. With its kelp forests and deep-sea hydrocorals, “This is something that makes us special,” she said.

Another exhibit focuses on oil rigs, which serve as artificial reefs between the mainland near the aquarium and Catalina Island. The exhibit shows how habitats form even around human-made structures such as oil platforms.

“It’s actually a really vibrant community,” Yam said.

The aquarium’s expansive seagrass meadow exhibit, inspired by seagrass found in the shallow waters of Orange County bays, highlights a critical habitat that isn’t commonly found in Southern California anymore, Yam said.

Although such meadows are “one of those neighborhoods in the ocean that people don’t think about a whole lot,” they’re actually crucial because of the grass’ ability to store carbon, which points to a natural solution for mitigating climate change, Yam said.

Apart from its larger exhibits, the gallery features smaller windows into habitats, along with interactive elements sprinkled throughout. On either end of the gallery are the nearly three-story-tall Honda Blue Cavern, and the Seal and Sea Lion Habitat.

“A lot of our experience as humans is, you know, maybe if we’re lucky, we’ll see the ocean, we’ll see the surface,” Yam said. “But it’s harder to see under and below the surface. And it turns out, there’s so much that’s out there. … This gallery shows us a snapshot of what’s out there.”

A man takes a photo of a sea lion at the Aquarium of the Pacific on Oct. 2, 2023. Photo by Tess Kazenoff.

The launch of the aquarium’s 25th anniversary celebration in May, and then the opening of the gallery, marks an opportunity to look ahead and evaluate how to continue growing, Yam said.

“I think re-envisioning the Southern California Gallery, it’s a great way to start …  the next phase of the aquarium’s life here as a member of our community in Long Beach,” Yam said.

Most of the aquarium’s visitors typically hail from Southern California. This summer, about 70% were from the Southland (4% came from Long Beach and 35% arrived from elsewhere in L.A. County) and the gallery serves as a window into their environment, Yam said.

In the next stage of the aquarium, Yam said she would love to see more people explore their connections to the ocean and environment, and in turn, learn how to be more connected to one another and the environmental challenges facing not only our ocean but the land as well.

Discovering more about the animals in our backyard is the first step, Yam said.

“I hope that people that come to walk through the Southern California Gallery get a chance to discover new things about our area,” Yam said. “I’d love for them to think about the ways that they’re connected to new and different creatures in the ocean, new and different habitats, neighborhoods and the ocean. And to know that we live in a really special place here in Southern California.”