Sleeping with the Fishes

Rhoads_CalAcademy_2913Some opportunities have expiration dates. Beyond the traditional bucket list, I need to do all the things that I can only do in the company of a kid now, while my kid still wants to keep company with me. Besides that, I love the idea of sleeping in strange places. Ever since the program started, I’ve wanted to sleep overnight in the California Academy of Sciences at their Penguins + Pajamas event.

My daughter Sorrel is ten and loves animals, so she was game. We started the evening with an animal encounter. We learned that Africa is so big that North America, China, and India could easily fit inside it — then we pet a boa constrictor. The snake felt smooth and strong and completely calm.

The Rainforests of the World exhibit is one of the Academy’s showpieces, a four-story dome full of lizards, frogs, spiders, leafcutter ants, and two macaws. It was a treat to explore the Rainforest with no one else around, although Sorrel was disappointed that the butterflies were sleepy after dark.

We also enjoyed the earthquake exhibit by ourselves. A room-sized shake table inside a faux Victorian house simulates the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes. In the past, I’d been disappointed by the exhibit’s lack of realism, but without the weight of 20 other people inside, the shaking really threw us around. Sorrel got a more authentic experience, much more like I remember the 1989 quake.

Sorrel loved spending as much time as she wanted at the touch pool in the aquarium, another of her favorite exhibits. She discovered what happens when you offer a finger to a starfish: it doesn’t want to let go. She was brave and gentle as she extricated herself.

Sleeping with the FishesI dragged her up onto the living roof to gaze through a telescope at the powdery surface of the moon. I wanted to convey to her the sense of wonder I felt when there were men walking on the moon, but it was cold outside and we’d checked out coats with our sleeping bags.

I also insisted we visit the Gem and Mineral Vault, which isn’t open to the public on regular days. In the old Academy – damaged by the 1989 earthquake – the gem collection was relegated to one fabulous hallway. The new green-certified museum isn’t built to regulate the temperature, humidity, and salinity coming in from San Francisco’s foggy weather, so vast amounts of the Academy’s collection cannot be displayed. It’s heartbreaking that the beautiful gems – and almost all the taxidermy specimens and anthropological collections – have to be locked away in climate-controlled vaults. Who knows when Sorrel will have the chance to see things I took for granted again?

When the time came to spread out our sleeping bags, finding a place to sleep was a challenge. Most of the overnight guests preferred the aquarium to the alligator swamp, African Hall, or Islands of Evolution exhibits. Sorrel and I finally settled into an alcove beside the stingrays, some of her favorite creatures at the Academy. The rays were quiet company through the night.

In the rainforest part of the aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences
In the rainforest part of the aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences

Before lights out, we hoped to get in to the planetarium show, but we lined up in the wrong place and caught the Hubble telescope slideshow instead. It was glorious and lovely (and inspired my daughter to do a report on the Hubble in school). Our imaginations were full of stars as we snuggled down to sleep.

Overall, the experience was amazing. The Academy staff seemed eager to see that we had a good time – even the man who got drafted at the last moment to give the Hubble lecture. I adore the Academy’s continuing mission to host an aquarium, planetarium, and a natural history museum all in one place. I’ve been visiting the Academy for 25 years, over the course of three different buildings. I always learn something new.

Penguins + Pajamas was magical, fascinating, and I would gladly do it again. Maybe we’ll sleep in the swamp next time. The family that chose that area had it practically to themselves…well, other than the company of the albino alligator and the snapping turtles.

There are so many other places to explore! Do you have an adventure with an expiration date ahead of you?


The California Academy of Sciences offers monthly sleepovers to families. Every so often, they also offer adult-only sleepovers.

The California Academy of Sciences:

Link to upcoming events:

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