• Who We Are

    The Central Coast Aquarium welcomes all visitors, friends and family, to indulge in the splendor of the Central Coast’s beauty and the wonder within the waters brought to land. Between hands-on experiences like the Exhibit Hall’s touch tanks or close encounters with swell sharks, to engaging academic programs where kiddos learn to walk on sea legs aboard a fishing boat, we aspire to inspire the explorers within every heart who enters our doors. Valuing the lessons to be learned through personalized interactions and exhibits, the Central Coast Aquarium is dedicated to continuing the legacy of it’s founder and continually developing newer, greater, more in depth experiences for our visitors and marine residents.

    We currently serve as a home to dozens of species, large and small, ranging from the giant pacific octopus to sea stars, rock crabs, smooth hound sharks, and lesser known gumboot chiton. As the ocean spans across nearly three-quarters of the Earth’s surface, this small sample of animals represent only a fragment of the oceanic life that depends on the health and cleanliness of our oceans. Specifically focusing on the diversity of our Pacific waters, our exhibits highlight the fascinating adaptations these creatures develop to survive and thrive in the seas, just footsteps away at Avila Bay.

    Our Mission

    The mission of the Central Coast Aquarium is to cultivate a community dedicated to ocean stewardship. Founded with a passion for continuing education, we aim to instill such values in our guests as they experience the ocean and its immense aquatic ecosystem through our personalized hands-on approach to learning. In this way we aim to inspire others to adopt the role of advocate, protector, enthusiast, and lifetime learner in the hope of extending the support our oceans receive.

    Our History

    Established by Russell “Russ” Kiessig in 1994 under it’s original name of the Avila Beach Sea Life Center, the Central Coast Aquarium has for decades welcomed ocean exploration throughout generations of seafaring children and families. Today the aquarium is a precious community resource with interactive exhibits, outdoor activities, and laboratory lessons for all ages, but it wasn’t always this way. Now, more than two decades later, we look back into the life of the visionary who made this inspiring organization possible.

    The roots of the Avila Beach Sea Life Center began to form in the early 1990s fueled by Russ’ dream to share the wonder of the ocean and with local residents, students, and travelers. He wanted to make an environment where both children and sea animals could thrive, knowing that some folks, as near as Santa Maria, never get a chance to see what lives beneath the waves. At the time Avila was a beautiful beach, but as his wife Carol recalls, there wasn’t much to do there. Russ wanted to bring a new draw to Avila, besides local relaxation, and strove to create something that people from all across the county would come to visit. To start, Russ focused on the Harford pier and began his first draft of the aquarium under the roof of the Olde Port dinning room. As enabled by the owner, Leonard Cone, Russ began to conduct small classroom lectures on ocean life and share his passion for the sea, but he quickly outgrew the venue. As Carol would say, “there is a whole world of education in that ocean,” and Russ now needed his own building to do it in.

    By 1994 the Avila Beach Sea Life Center opened as a public non-profit within a new building where Russ’ dream to engage students with marine life was a reality. The Avila community positively responded to the Sea Life Center and the local golf course offered to hold a Sea Fare, now the Catch of the Central Coast, fundraising event on an annual basis every fall. During the early 2000's Directorship fell to Russ’ daughter, Priscilla, who brought development of the aquarium to an entirely new level. Sadly, this transition would not be enjoyed by Russ as he passed in 2005 and was laid to rest with his fishing pole beneath a headstone with the beloved sentiment, “gone fishing.”

    More than twenty years later and counting, the Central Coast Aquarium continues to embrace Russ’ original mission and promote the importance of direct engagement with students and marine life. This could not have been possible without the aquariums's leadership and a constant stream of volunteers, some having been involved with the aquarium since it’s founding, who donate their time to oceanic stewardship. Along with a staff Aquarist and dedicated Aquarium Manager, every day the aquarium welcomes guests to experience Russ Kiessig’s dream and take a little taste of that salty sea home with them to inspire generations to come.

Board Members

  • Debbie Collins

  • Richard Zacky

    Vice Chair
  • Jeff Priolo

  • Dean Wendt

  • Tim Williams

  • John Lindsey

  • Kristin Mehiel


Staff Members

  • Christine Johnson

    Executive Director
  • Travis Norton

    Director of Programs
  • Emily Sampson

    Director of Husbandry
  • Kim Jeffrey

    Aquarium Coordinator
  • Megan Drap

    Aquarium Coordinator
  • Jami Clayton

    Aquarium Coordinator
  • Maureen Abert

    Aquarium Coordinator

Our Sponsors

Avila Beach Community Foundation
Avila Beach Community Services District
Cal Poly
California Coastal Commision
California Fish & Wildlife
Coastal Conservancy
The Community Foundation
County of San Luis Obispo
Port San Luis Harbor District
San Luis Obispo County Parks

Richard & Kathleen Zacky Family Foundation

King & Brenda Lee

Debbie Collins

The Jansen Foundation

The Nichols Foundation

(805) 595-7280

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50 San Juan Street, Avila Beach, CA 93424