When my kid was a toddler, we spent hours and hours in the Academy of Sciences while it was exiled from Golden Gate Park. The museum was temporarily housed in a big warehouse south of Market Street, where I could let her out of the stroller to run around. It was a great place for a kid to burn off energy on a foggy summer day.
Originally, the Academy of Sciences had been founded in San Francisco in 1853. Its museum downtown on Market Street was destroyed by the fires that followed the 1906 earthquake. The Academy moved to Golden Gate Park, where they opened another building in 1916. In 1923, the Steinhart Aquarium was added to the building. That’s the place I remember from my first visits to the city: it contained an alligator pit in the floor of a room full of snakes in little aquariums. It also displayed the corpse of a great white shark on ice and there was a fish roundabout: a huge, curved aquarium at the top of a staircase, designed so that the viewer could feel they were inside a fish tank.
I loved the old Academy building, but it was cramped and often crowded. After the 1989 earthquake, the Academy — built on sand dunes — had worrisome damage.
It took years of fundraising, but the building was eventually closed. The alligators and most of the snakes went to other homes. Many of the fish were moved south of Market.
The Academy-in-exile was pretty much the way I describe it in the story “Something in the Water”: the collection was all jumbled together, so that the poison dart frogs were displayed near the African penguins. The place was kept dark so that the bright aquariums stood out on the unadorned walls. Bare pipes and conduits hung from the ceiling. The floor was simple concrete. No attempt had been made to disguise the temporary nature of the warehouse that housed them.
My kid and I spent days and days there. I fell in love with the lonely giant sea bass in his tank with the moray eels. I think, at one point early on, there really was a placard that called him Bocalo, because of his big mouth. The sign disappeared before I got a photo of it, so I chose to believe it was because the scientists decided that naming the fish was too whimsical. I put his name back in my story.
I have taken the behind-the-scenes tour at the aquarium in all of its modern incarnations — before the renovation (when a friend traded Sharks hockey tickets for a private tour), at the South of Market location, and back in the park at the new building (I treated myself for my birthday one year). That’s how I learned about the tap water in the tanks, doctored with Instant Ocean.
The ichthyologist Jacki Ruiz was named for one of my kid’s preschool teachers, who did wear a toe ring. She was a surfer.
I’ve never been out on a boat in Humboldt Bay, but I’ve been lucky to go on several whale watches up the Northern California coast. The humpback whale and her curious calf came from the most recent of those trips.
I love the glitzy new Academy of Sciences — I’ve even slept over there a handful of times — but I’m glad to have commemorated the Academy-in-exile in my story. It was a strange, uncomfortable, and magical place, and it meant a lot of me when my kid was small.
My story “Something in the Water” asks what if a creature captured by the California Academy of Sciences was as curious about a scientist as she was about it. Traveling witch Alondra DeCourval tries to mitigate the damage.
The story appears in the most recent issue of Occult Detective Quarterly, available on Amazon: https://amzn.to/2Vr6UmS Having the story in ODQ was a goal for me, so I am thrilled.