Exhibit Now Open!

The Philippine Coral Reef Exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences
by Edith R. Borbon

A coral reef exhibit? My sister’s first reaction was: “Oh, a photography exhibit…pictures of the coral reef?” A resounding NO was my reply: “It’ll be closer to seeing the real thing.”

Yes, folks, the California Academy of Sciences (the Academy) opened its doors on September 27 at its new location in Golden Gate Park, and the Philippine Coral Reef Exhibit is one of the cornerstone exhibits. When you go, expect to see live soft and hard corals (a total of 1,000 square feet), sharks, rays, coral reef fish, and other marine life—all this in a 212,000 gallon (80 cubic meters), 25-foot deep tank with viewing options at surface level and underwater.

Other mini-displays supplement the main exhibit: 25 “focus” tanks for closer viewing of vibrant, charismatic species; an adjoining lagoon with mangrove trees; and “Filipino Voices” that showcase Filipinos (in the Philippines) who have made a difference in marine ecology and coral reef conservation. There will also be in-tank diver presentations.

But exactly what is a coral reef? A coral reef is an underwater limestone structure inhabited by colorful plants and animals, of which corals are the most important animals.  As only scuba divers can attest, it is a sight to behold. But the exhibit at the Academy will give you a chance to view a coral reef without donning all that gear and getting wet.

inside exhibit

The Exhibit Itself

You may wonder why the focus on a coral reef modeled after those found in the Philippines. Why not one patterned after, say, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia? There is a very good reason why the Academy has chosen to showcase a Philippine coral reef: biodiversity. Coral reefs in that part of the world are the richest in marine fauna and flora. From 1992 until 2008, the number of species discovered has tripled. And previously undocumented species are still being discovered. Academy Senior Curator Terry Gosliner has been studying Philippine coral reefs since 1992 and has documented over 700 species of nudibranchs (sea slugs) from the Philippines. More than half of these are new species, discovered for the first time.

In preparation for this exhibit, the Academy started growing corals a few years ago. Corals are animals that act much like plants: given the right water and light conditions, they grow. All it takes is a small piece. Bart Shepherd, CAS aquarium chief curator, has been in charge of this project at the Academy: cultivating, harvesting, and planting corals. The museum acquired the corals from different aquaria in the U.S., from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (specimens seized because of improper permits that would most likely perish if shipped back to their country of origin) and from the Philippines itself.  Bart Shepherd, Dr. Terry Gosliner (Senior Curator) and Dr. Meg Burke (Director of Education) from the Academy have been on several dives in the Philippines to do research.

The water in the aquarium is taken from Ocean Beach. A long, underground pipe connects the aquarium to its water source. All of the seawater in the coral reef tank is filtered and exchanged every 45 minutes. Water jets simulate wave action and stimulate the corals. The aquarium temperature is kept at a constant 78° F. Tropical Philippine sunlight is mimicked by sunlight shining through skylights and supplemented by 120 metal halide lights (originally designed for use in sports stadiums).

The Academy Building

The Academy’s new home is green, and sophisticated in design and architecture: visually appealing as well as energy-efficient. The building, measuring 410,000 square feet in area (100,000 square feet of public space), was finished at a cost of $488 million (inclusive of building, exhibition, relocation, and interim operating costs). The Renzo Piano Building Workshop (architectural firm of Italian Pritzker Prize winner Renzo Piano), together with SF firm Stantec Architecture, collaborated on creating a building that made use of sustainable materials (think used blue denim jeans for insulation) and incorporated the best and latest that design and technology have to offer: a living roof, solar energy panels, radiant subfloor heating, water reclamation, natural lighting, glass walls, and an automated ventilation system, among others. (And let’s not forget the seismic structure, considering that the Bay Area is in earthquake country!) Suffice to say that the Academy is aiming for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum level certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, the highest award given. With this new building, the Academy is most likely to receive this prestigious certification.

The Academy had been at its Golden Gate Park location from 1916 until 2004, when damage caused by the Loma Prieta earthquake forced it to move to 875 Howard Street, where it stayed for several years while design and construction of the new building took place.

Partnerships and Collaborations

The California Academy of Sciences is not only a museum, but also a research and educational institution. In its efforts to develop and promote the coral reef exhibit, it reached out to the Filipino community. In the Philippines, there have been (and continue to be) ties with various government agencies, non-profit organizations, and environmental activists: Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, the Coastal Commission, Museo Pambata, PUSOD Philippines (with Malou Babilonia), Ipat Luna, Ka Uper, and Princess Aldovino. “One of the most rewarding aspects of the whole coral reef project has been the outreach and connection to the Filipino community both here in the Bay Area and in the Philippines. Through our combined efforts we are promoting awareness, research, education and conservation for reefs,” said Dr. Burke.

Here in the U.S., the coral reef exhibit and outreach project has been funded in part by the National Science Foundation. Last year, the Academy and PUSOD organized a group of Filipino Americans from the Bay Area to serve as an advisory group. Now called REEF (Reaching out through Environmental Education to Filipinos), it is headed by a Steering Committee chaired by tireless Mary Lou Salcedo, a PUSOD trustee. REEF also formed a Marketing Team led by the dynamic Voltaire Gungab to publicize the exhibit and reef issues.

Through presence in Filipino events, festivals, and the media, REEF wants to generate interest and involvement in the exhibit among Filipinos, who are generally non-museum goers. Let’s face it: food and shopping are the main attractions for us. Flyers were handed out in June at the Fiesta Filipina event at Civic Center. Presentations were given to various organizations in the Bay Area. A float at the Pistahan festival in August showcased a Miss Coral Reef and divers dressed in scuba gear.

The California Academy of Sciences is the only museum in the world that houses an aquarium, a planetarium, a natural history museum, and a research and education institution! And it’s right here in our backyard.

I hope I’ve convinced you that the Academy is not your typical museum, and that it’s worthy of your visit.  So please, do make it a point to visit the Academy as soon as possible to view the Philippine Coral Reef Exhibit and the other spectacular displays. 

For information and directions, go to

Photos courtesy of Mario "Sanny" Leviste - www.visualmoment.com