The Susanne Lawrenz-Miller Exhibit Hall showcases five major environments: Sandy Beaches, Mudflats, Rocky Shores, Kelp Forests and Open Ocean Ecosystems. Explore interpretative and live exhibits to learn about the many animals and plants that live in each habitat. 

Sandy Beach

Sandy Beaches

Beaches and mudflats are dynamic ecosystems that are constantly shifting and moving. Wind and waves constantly resuspend sand on these shorelines, reshaping the face of the beach. Spring and summer bring about soft waves, which deposit sediment onto the beach and build up a slope. Fall and winter, along with the storms that come with them, plunder the beaches with large crashing waves, removing sand and sometimes leaving nothing behind but rocks.

Due to its ever-changing nature, only a few types of animals have adapted to live in this type of habitat, like clams, sand dollars, sand stars, fishes and crabs. In order to cope with shifting sand, tidal fluctuations, extreme temperature changes and desiccation, these animals can burrow in the sand, live above the tideline, or ride the crashing waves. However, there is another threat these animals are not specialized to cope with, and that is human impact. Sandy beaches are extremely popular for human visitors and unfortunately this makes this habitat and its inhabitants susceptible to marine debris, pollution, and other coastal disturbances.

Sandy beaches make up over 30% of the world’s coastlines, including many Southern California beaches, like our very own Cabrillo Beach. Grunion visit our beach every year to spawn and bury their eggs in the sand, to be incubated and then hatched with the waves of the next high tide. To see firsthand how waves affect and shape the shore, visit the Sandy Beach Wave Tank found inside the Exhibit Hall. And stop by the Aquatic Nursery to learn more about ongoing grunion conservation and research programs off our local beaches!



The mudflat habitat is an enclosed coastal area with fresh and saltwater saturated sediments. Mudflats appear barren but conceal a rich variety of life. Many animals depend on this fragile and threatened habitat. Commercially important fish, such as the California halibut, use this habitat as a nursery ground which provides protection and a rich source of food.

The area surrounding the upper part of the mud is called the saltmarsh and teems with plants. Marsh plants provide shelter and living space for other organisms. The breakdown and decay of these plants produce organic debris which is a rich food source for a variety of invertebrates, like fiddler crabs and amphipods. These animals are an attractive food source for the mudflat’s large bird population, including the willet and snowy egret. Over 100 species of birds reside in or visit Southern California mudflats.

The highest zone is dominated by salt grass which can tolerate only the occasional tidal flooding that occurs at this level. The middle zone is characterized by pickleweed which is more tolerant of tidal flooding. The lowest zone teems with eel grass which is one of the few marsh plants that can grow completely underwater.

Visit the mudflat room at the aquarium to learn more about marsh plants and the many animals that depend on this important habitat.

Rocky Shores

The rocky shore is a difficult place to live, yet some of the largest and most diverse populations of marine plants and animals can be found here. Explore how these animals have many different adaptations to protect themselves and find food.

Seaweeds and microscopic plants produce the basic food of the ocean using the sun's energy. Seaweeds then provide food for such grazers as snails, sea hares and urchins. In the rocky shore, sponges, sea squirts, mussels, fanworms and barnacles filter tiny food particles from the water. Sea anemones and their relatives are hungry predators. These animals, in turn, are eaten by the flamboyant nudibranch slugs and other snails.

Hunters of the seashore capture their prey in different ways. Sea stars use hundreds of tube feet. Worms and snails may drill or harpoon their prey, while some crabs use powerful crushing claws.

Visit our Tidepool Habitat touch tank to experience a variety of rocky shore marine life such as a bumpy sea star or a prickly urchin. Educators will guide you as you get your hands wet, learning more about the animals and plants that call this habitat home.

Kelp Forest

Kelp Forests

The richest habitat along our Californian rocky shores is the kelp forest. Giant kelp is the largest and fastest growing of all seaweeds and forms the framework for the kelp forest community. It attracts and influences many other species of animals and plants within the forest. When it tears loose it becomes drift kelp, providing large quantities of food for animals living on the seashore and ocean bottom.

Kelp bass, giant kelpfish, garibaldi, Norris' top snail, and kelp crabs are all common inhabitants of the kelp forest. Kelp anchors to the rocky bottom with a structure called the holdfast. The holdfast has many crevices and is home to many other animals such as spiny brittlestars and amphipods. The leaf-like kelp blades (also called fronds) provide a large surface area for photosynthesis. On the blades themselves, a bryozoan can grow rapidly and completely cover a kelp blade within 3-4 weeks.

Kelp forests are found along the west coasts of North and South America, the southern tip of Africa and Australia, and islands near Antarctica. Giant kelp grows best in well mixed, cool, clear ocean water. In southern California, giant kelp beds were common until the 1950s. Changes in water conditions and the near extinction of the southern sea otter, which resulted in a population explosion of the purple sea urchin, severely reduced the size and number of local kelp beds for several years. Due to restoration efforts, kelp forests have recovered along Palos Verdes in the last several years. 

Visit the Kelp Forest gallery at the aquarium to learn more about this habitat, the animals that depend on it and how they are adapted to living in this unique environment.

Open Ocean

Although 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered in water, the open ocean only comprises 41%. Latitude differences affect solar energy distribution across the globe and therefore surface ocean temperature can vary drastically, from 30°C (86°F) in the tropics to -2°C (28°F) near the poles. Water temperature is also affected by depth, with temperature decreasing as depth increases. But despite all these differences, waters worldwide are connected through a system of currents driven by winds. This network of currents is responsible for the movement of nutrients through upwelling and downwelling events that contribute to ecosystem productivity.

Because of such varying conditions, open ocean and deep sea habitats are home to vastly different organisms. This includes delicate jellyfish, pelagic fish, seabirds, anglerfish, and other light-producing animals, ranging from beautiful to bizarre. Shapes, colors, and behavior of inhabitants in the Fish Diversity Tank reflect where and how these fish live. Sharks also inhabit a variety of habitats and come in different shapes and sizes. Some of the biggest sharks are not ferocious eaters, as one might expect, but gentle filter-feeders who live off tiny krill and other plankton. Be sure and stop by the Jelly Lab to see what type of plankton is growing in our lab. Students, volunteers and staff are often working on an array of projects. You might even see some baby jellies, called ephyra, moving on the microscope monitor!        

Whales and dolphins, descended from land mammals, are the largest and most intelligent animals in the ocean. You can inspect displays on whale and dolphin feeding, their skeletons, fossils, a video of various cetaceans, and recordings of whale sounds. Despite thriving in the open ocean, some animals still need a terrestrial habitat to rest, away from human populated coastlines. The Channel Islands serve as a refuge and are major breeding grounds for many thousands of seabirds, seals and sea lions. Feeding and nesting habitats are displayed in our Exhibit Hall, along with the local history of pinnipeds. Make sure to check out all these exhibits on your next visit. 

Open Ocean