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Crescent City's Ocean World Aquarium

06/24/2015 08:40PM ● By Jordan Venema

Undersea Exploration

July 2015
By Jordan Venema
Photos: Jessica Kirby

Summer months are here, and with them comes summer heat. As temperatures rise, California’s North Coast becomes an even cooler destination. There’s the ocean spray, the redwood shade, and if you know where to look, an interactive aquatic experience surrounded by millions of gallons of water.

Crescent City’s Ocean World Aquarium and isn’t just a way to beat the heat; it’s also an up close and personal way to experience ocean life of the Pacific Northwest through interactive tide pools and a 45-minute guided tour.

Ocean World has been privately owned and operated in Crescent City since 1964, but the aquarium’s history is anything but sedentary. Like the ocean life in its exhibits, Ocean World has moved with the tide – literally.

“It’s actually a ship that used to float out in the ocean that was later pulled onto shore,” says owner Mary Wilson. The former barge boat floated from Seattle and down the coastline where it moored in Crescent City’s harbor.

The maritime aquarium would partially submerge, offering visitors a close-up view of ocean life beneath the surface. But winter weather wasn’t always kind to the boat, says Wilson, “and the fish would all get away.” So in 1985, the boat anchored permanently and retired from the seafaring life.

In 1992, Wilson purchased the aquarium from bankruptcy court, essentially giving Ocean World new life, new critters.

Since Wilson took the helm, the aquarium has grown into a destination. Just last year, they had 60,000 guests visit the aquarium.“We often have people tell us that they enjoy Ocean World more than they do some of the bigger aquariums,” she says – hard to believe, perhaps, but she thinks Ocean World’s size works in its favor.

“It’s not like going into a mall where there’s a little bit of everything,” says Wilson. “I call it a boutique aquarium.” And Ocean World’s specialty: a personal tour through exhibits representing the local sea life from the Pacific Northwest.

That’s a 45-minute guided tour through exhibits like Rocky Bottom Environment, with rockfish, wolf eels and giant seas stars, or the Open Ocean Environment, with bat rays, striped back, green sturgeon and dogfish shark. “A guide takes you through the aquarium, explains everything to you,” explains Wilson.

Guests can also keep cool by immersing their hands in the interactive petting tank, where they can gently handle starfish, urchins and anemone. For more daring guests who think starfish and urchins are a little pedestrian, they can build up the courage to pet a live shark.

“It’s quite a challenge for everyone,” Wilson says. “We have leopard sharks in our petting area that run about five to six feet long, and also horn shark, which are about three feet long and a little broader.”

But the real highlight at Ocean World, says Wilson, is the seal and sea lion performance. Ocean World rescued Cora, 6, from Long Beach, and its newest sea lion is Pearl, 2, “still a young pup who is learning new behaviors all the time.”

“Our animals are trained and we take a lot of time and care to take care of our animals to keep them healthy,” Wilson says. They make sure all guests have an opportunity to see their sea lions and seals perform and feed.

About 40 percent of guests are return customers, mostly families, says Wilson.

Personally speaking, Wilson understands the draw. “When I go on trips with my family, we go on all the small things… it’s just so much more real Americana. And up here, in Del Norte County, you get a lot more bang for your buck.” Most importantly, without all that “hustle and bustle” of the larger destination aquariums, “you can spend that time with your family instead,” says Wilson. Or with the fishes. Or with both.

Ocean World • 304 Highway 101 South, Crescent City
(707) 464-4900 • Summer hours: daily 9am – 9pm