By Andrea Lopez-Villafaña
The adventure begins as early as arriving to the Living Coast Discovery Center, where two large Eastern Pacific green sea turtles swim up to the exhibit and greet the excited guests.
The visiting children push their hands and faces up to the glass, almost wishing they could join the turtles in an afternoon swim, enjoy the close interactions, which is something the center easily provides throughout all its exhibits all while educating their visitors.
The nonprofit zoo and aquarium located in Chula Vista offers their guests not only up close and personal experiences with native wildlife creatures found in San Diego, but also provides the opportunity for guests to learn about how their actions affect local animals.
Executive Director Ben Vallejos said it is ultimately about creating connections by allowing visitors to be hands on when appropriate.
“We say people protect what they love and you can’t love what you don’t know,” Vallejos said.
Unlike other popular wildlife centers in San Diego, the animals in exhibit at the the Living Coast Discovery Center are local to San Diego, Baja California, or Southern California region.
Many of the animals like Sapphire, a loggerhead sea turtle, or Franklin, a bald eagle, are considered non-releasable animals because of injuries, however, they serve as examples of how the actions of humans affect surrounding animals.
Sapphire, who was injured by a boat and was deemed unreleasable because she has trouble submerging, swims in the Shark and Ray Experience exhibit and her story is told to visitors so they learn that when they are in the wild they should be careful and aware of their surroundings.
“She’s one of the stories that really helps people connect with what we are doing out there can have a lasting affect,” Grecia Figueroa, marketing and communications manager for the Living Coast Discovery Center, said.
The center recently started their seasonal programing series, Naturally Wild, which will go on until Sept. 3, that allows guests to have close animal encounters, feedings, events, and presentations.
Along with everyday activities and exhibits, the Naturally Wild series hosts events like the upcoming “Go Green! Go Blue!” special event for Earth Day on April 21.
“(Naturally Wild) is showing people how everything around us every animal is just naturally wild and showing them how and the unique characteristics that make them thrive in the habitat,” Figueroa said.
The center sees an attendance of 80,000 guests per year and over 30,000 students from schools in San Diego participated in field trips throughout the last year, camps, or education programs.
Because of its location in the South Bay, the center provides information graphics in English and Spanish and through a new grant they will be have a bilingual educator during their summer programs to talk to guests.
“We are in the South Bay region we know that a lot of the population is Hispanic so we want to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to learn about the environment,” Vallejos said.
The Living Coast Discovery Center, formerly known as the Chula Vista Nature Center, celebrated its 30th anniversary celebration in 2017 and with the development of the Chula Vista Bayfront, they expect to play a larger role as an attraction in the city.
The center is open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and ticket prices range from free to $16 with free parking and a free shuttle service.