Those that came to the opening of Heal the Bay’s welcome center and gift shop on the Santa Monica Pier received a firsthand experience with creatures native to the Santa Monica Bay. Credit: Photo by Thomas Leffler

Heal the Bay celebrates 20th anniversary with expanded presence on the Pier

The stewards of the Santa Monica Bay have taken an extended foothold in the area’s premier tourist destination.

Heal the Bay, an organization committed to public health and environmental justice for the Bay’s wide range of species, officially opened a welcome center and gift shop location on the Santa Monica Pier this month. The welcome center lets visitors purchase tickets for Heal the Bay’s aquarium, located underneath the pier, an educational experience Aquarium Director Marslaidh Ryan refers to as “Santa Monica’s best-kept secret.”

Gaining space on the top of the pier means the aquarium, now in its 20th year, won’t be a secret for much longer. The facility contains species local to the Santa Monica Bay habitat, and includes hands-on experiences like “touch tanks” so visitors can sense the Bay’s unique inhabitants.

“[People] might not really know what’s beneath the surface, and it gives [them] a really cool view of what’s down there,” Ryan said.

Heal the Bay CEO and President Tracy Quinn echoes the educational aspect of the aquarium, stating that her team is able to “inspire the next generation” to take responsibility in protecting the environment.

“We let them see and interact with the incredible species that live underneath the pier … and in doing so, we know that they are much more likely to want to take action, to be able to assure that we have a healthy bay for them and for the creatures,” Quinn said.

Founded in 1985, Heal the Bay uses the aquarium and other local events to promote its mission of protecting the coastal waters and watersheds of Southern California. Santa Monica and surrounding beaches have been a focus via monthly beach cleanups, with 2023’s Coastal Cleanup Day fast approaching. The Sept. 23 event at multiple locations will remove thousands of pounds of trash and recyclables from watersheds, neighborhoods and the coastline.

The educational programming arm of Heal the Bay remains strong as well, hosting collaborative discussions including “The Transformative Power of the Ocean and its Waves,” starting Saturday at 6 p.m. at the aquarium.

Equipped with an invaluable spot on top of the pier, the new welcome center and gift shop is the tide to lift all ships, a major boost of promotion to all future events. The gift shop offers products from hats and t-shirts to plush toys of the Bay’s creatures, all sustainable and organically sourced.

“We are really excited to be able to provide products that represent who Heal the Bay is,” Quinn said.

Who Heal the Bay is, for Quinn, is a chance to play a major role in not just education, but environmental policy. Over the past few years, Quinn and her organization have been actively involved in “a watchdog role” for the water quality permitting process in the Los Angeles region, just one of the efforts Quinn said is “making sure that polluters are held accountable.” Heal the Bay also helped facilitate the process of banning single-use plastics in Los Angeles County as well as Santa Monica.

“[We’ve] made incredible progress in making sure that no person ever gets sick from a day at the beach,” she added.

For Ryan, Heal the Bay is an opportunity to work with other agencies on restoration projects for critically endangered animals and other species. The organization recently raised a giant sea bass for five years, releasing the creature into the ocean after its 40-pound frame outgrew its tank in 2021. Fitting the creature with an acoustic transmitter, Heal the Bay receives signals on where the bass travels, with the hope that it will spawn and boost the overfished species’ recovering population.

“It’s pretty incredible about how successful those releases can be,” Ryan said.

Working as aquarium director for five years now, Ryan said the next five years may include a full-scale exhibit aquarium facility on the top of the pier, further raising the profile of the advocacy group. Though nestled under the pier until the opening of the welcome center, Santa Monica residents continually show their appreciation for the group’s efforts.

“It’s amazing how many people will recognize our name and know about our program … even if they didn’t know that there was an aquarium down here, they know [of] the science or the research,” she added.

Thomas Leffler has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Broadcast Journalism from Penn State University and has been in the industry since 2015. Prior to working at SMDP, he was a writer for AccuWeather and managed...