12 Months of Phenomenal Science

As a natural history museum, we can’t help but revisit the past. Take a look at some top-tier Academy moments from 2023.
December 15, 2023
A young girl watches the Foucault pendulum knock down pins at the Academy
More than 1.1 million guests visited the Academy in 2023, including this patient pendulum fan. Nicole Ravicchio © 2023 California Academy of Sciences

When we say the Academy is open 365 days a year, we don’t just mean the museum. From the labyrinth of labs below the public spaces (including Claude’s swamp!) to field work sites around the world, Academy staff work all year long conducting path-breaking research, caring for animals big and small, mentoring students, and more.

While 2023 was anchored by two epic occasions—our first Academy Day on April 4 and Steinhart Aquarium’s centennial on September 29—we had plenty of reasons to celebrate throughout the year. Explore 12 monthly highlights below, and peruse our annual report for more Academy awesomeness.


Luiz Rocha elected as a 2022 AAAS Fellow

Academy Curator and Follett Chair of Ichthyology and Co-Director of Hope for Reefs Luiz Rocha, PhD, was elected as a 2022 Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Rocha has dived to the mesophotic, or twilight, zone as deep as 500 feet about 1,500 times since 2002, describing more than 20 new-to-science species along the way. "It’s great to be able to draw attention to these lesser-known reefs through this recognition," Rocha says.

Luiz Rocha smiles on a dive boat in the Maldives during a scientific expedition. Photo by Gayle Laird

Luiz Rocha gears up for a dive during an expedition to the Maldives in March 2023. Gayle Laird © 2023 California Academy of Sciences

Luiz Rocha steps off a dive boat into the azure waters of the Maldives during an Academy expedition. Photo by Gayle Laird

Rocha steps off the dive boat into the Maldives’ azure waters. Gayle Laird © 2023 California Academy of Sciences


Our penguin colony grew by two

Ignatz and Lazola hatched their way into our hearts on February 15, just three months after the arrival of Pogo and Ozzie. As the newest members of our Species Survival Plan colony of African penguins, the two chicks will help enhance the genetic diversity of this endangered species. Stay tuned for more penguin news in the new year!

Tiny African penguin chicks Ignatz and Lazola cuddle up together behind the scenes at the Academy
Ignatz and Lazola cozy up behind the scenes. Holly Rosenblum © 2023 California Academy of Sciences

One database, one billion scientific objects

The Academy joined a global natural history initiative linking the scientific collections of 73 museums in 28 countries. The resulting database of more than 1.1 billion biological, geological, paleontological, and anthropological objects can help us forecast the future by providing an unprecedented peek into the past.

A tray of Coleoptera beetle specimens from the Academy’s entomology collection. Kathryn Whitney © 2019 California Academy of Sciences

Big Bang Gala raises $2 million for Islands 2030

Our annual gala shined a spotlight on our Islands 2030 initiative, which aims to halt biodiversity loss and habitat degradation on five key tropical island archipelagos by 2030. “Islands harbor the greatest concentration of biodiversity on our planet and are one of our best chances to learn how interventions can stop—or even reverse—the biodiversity crisis,” said Dr. Lauren Esposito, Islands 2030 initiative co-director.

Drs. Lauren Esposito and Rayna Bell during a night hike on St. Martin
Drs. Lauren Esposito (left) and Rayna Bell on a night hike during an Islands 2030 expedition to the Caribbean island of St. Martin. Gayle Laird © 2022 California Academy of Sciences

Bringing a butterfly back from the brink

In collaboration with the Presidio Trust, Creekside Science, and Revive and Restore, Academy researcher Durrell Kapan, PhD, led a team at Fort Ord Dunes State Park in Monterey on a search for silvery blue butterflies—the closest living relative to the extinct Xerces blue, a butterfly in San Francisco that was the first known insect species in North America to go extinct due to human disturbance, in 1943. The team is hoping to relocate a handful of native butterflies similar to the Xerces blue to the Presidio’s recently restored dune habitat.

Closeup of a silvery blue butterfly with wings outstretched on a plant. Photo by Gayle Laird
A silvery blue butterfly alights on a plant in the Monterey dunes. Gayle Laird © 2023 California Academy of Sciences

NightLife launches Says Who? series

Who is granted authority to share stories and expertise? Who is silenced? NightLife: Says Who?, an all-new three-part series, took a critical look at storyteller privilege while creating a space to uplift the scientists, artists, and experts who have faced a more difficult road to an audience. The next iteration of the series, NightLife: Intersections, will debut this spring.

NightLife: Says Who? guests attend a talk in Tusher African Hall. Photo by Nicole Ravicchio
NightLife: Says Who? guests attend a talk in Tusher African Hall. Nicole Ravicchio © 2023 California Academy of Sciences

Making the cover of Nature

Researchers from the Academy and other institutions co-authored a paper published in Nature on the pervasiveness of plastic pollution in coral reefs. Surprisingly, they found that twilight zone reefs 100 to 500 feet below the surface were most heavily impacted by plastic debris. “We need to protect deeper reefs and make sure that they are included in the conservation conversation,” says Bart Shepherd, senior director of Steinhart Aquarium and one of the paper’s co-authors.

The cover of Nature journal with photo of debris-covered urchin by Luiz Rocha
A debris-covered fire urchin shows the impact of plastic pollution on mesophotic species. Luiz Rocha © 2023 California Academy of Sciences

Teens take over the Academy

On August 11, 1,400 teens from 103 cities across California convened at the Academy for our 11th annual #TeenScienceNight—a free night of exhibit exploration, hands-on science investigations, and networking. In the words of one young attendee, “When I heard that I could go to the Academy for free I was so stoked. I love everything science and anything that includes the environment, so this was a perfect night for me.”

Academy teen interns in the lobby as guests arrive for Teen Science Night
Careers in Science interns prepare to welcome #TeenScienceNight guests to the Academy.

Reimagining SF: From doom to bloom

A new movement took root atop our Living Roof on September 7. Reimagining San Francisco is an alliance of 37 (and counting) organizations working to improve the ecological health of San Francisco and equitably distribute the benefits of local nature to all. “With the combined resources, brilliance, and passion of this many organizations and talented individuals, we can be a powerful agent for regenerating San Francisco,” said Dr. Rebecca Johnson, co-director of the Academy’s Thriving California initiative and a leader on the Reimagining San Francisco steering committee.

Planting native plants on Academys Living Roof during Reimagining SF launch event. Photo by Nicole Ravicchio
Dr. Rebecca Johnson (4th from left) plants native species atop the Living Roof during the Reimagining San Francisco launch. Nicole Ravicchio © 2023 California Academy of Sciences

A $1.5 million grant to restore coral on Roatán

The Academy and Roatán Marine Park were awarded a $1.5 million grant by the Coral Research & Development Accelerator Platform (CORDAP) to construct the first coral rearing facility in Honduras and test the most effective methods to restore coral reefs on the island of Roatán. The three-year project kicked off in December with scientists from Roatán Marine Park visiting the Academy’s Coral Regeneration Lab (CoRL) during a coral spawning.

Underwater photo of healthy elkhorn coral on a reef in Roatan. Photo by Luiz Rocha
Roatán’s reefs are home to some surprisingly healthy elkhorn coral, like this one. Luiz Rocha © California Academy of Sciences

Spark lights up the planetarium dome

Morrison Planetarium’s newest original film, Spark: The Universe in Us, premiered at the Academy on November 9. Narrated by Diego Luna, viewers zoom through the cosmos to see how growing, dying, and colliding stars seed the Universe with the building blocks of life.

Wordmark for Spark: The Universe in Us planetarium film with digital simulation of a galaxy
Spark includes a number of visualizations of cosmic phenomena that have never before been seen on screen.

Out with the old, in with the new (coral babies)

Congratulations, it’s a gamete! CoRL played host to another successful annual spawning event earlier this month when our Acropora coral released a flurry of egg and sperm “bundles” into the water column. Our researchers hope that breeding more resilient corals will help the world’s reefs survive our rapidly warming oceans.

An Acropora coral releases gametes into the water column in the Academy’s Coral Regeneration Lab.
An Acropora coral releases gametes into the water column in the Academy’s Coral Regeneration Lab (CoRL).

For a more detailed snapshot of Academy activities between July 2022 and June 2023, download our FY23 annual report.

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