Avila Beach

Our Mission

To cultivate a community dedicated to ocean stewardship through education, engagement, and action.

Our History

Central Coast Aquarium’s founders, Russ and Carol Kiessig, established the organization as the Port San Luis Marine Institute in 1994 in Avila Beach fueled by Russ’ dream to share the wonder of the ocean with local residents, students, and travelers. Officially incorporated as a 501c3 nonprofit organization in 1998, Russ specifically wanted to provide opportunities for local school children to learn about San Luis Obispo County’s marine habitats and estuarine environments.

In the beginning, Russ taught out in the open on the Harford Pier in Avila. At that time he was also working on his first draft of a future aquarium facility. Thanks to a partnership with Leonard Cohen, the owner of The Olde Port Inn, Russ began to conduct lectures on ocean life in the restaurant’s second floor dining room, but he quickly outgrew the venue.

The vision of building an aquarium and education center under the new name, Avila Beach Sea Life Center, became a reality after the community of Avila Beach received mitigation funds from Union Oil/Unocal in response to underground oil contamination that occurred in Avila over decades but became known as an underground environmental disaster in the early 1990s. These mitigation funds provided for the construction of a brand new marine science education center and aquarium, located adjacent to Avila Beach Park, on a parcel donated from Unocal which was transferred from San Luis Obispo County to the Avila Beach Community Services District for this purpose and leased to the CCA for $1 per year. Sadly, Russ passed away in 2005 and was not able to see the realization of his decades long vision for a state-of-the-art aquarium and marine science education center in Avila Beach which opened in 2006.

In 2010, the addition of docent-led interpretation of the Aquarium’s exhibits of sea animals allowed the organization to open its Exhibit Hall to the public and expand its reach into the community on a gradual basis. The Avila Sea Life Center was rebranded as the Central Coast Aquarium in 2013 to expand its reach countywide as the authority on marine science education. 

Today, the Central Coast Aquarium celebrates 30 years as a precious community resource with interactive exhibits, outdoor activities, and laboratory lessons for all ages serving over 16,000 visitors and 4,500 school students each year. The Central Coast Aquarium continues to embrace Russ Kiessig’s original mission to cultivate a community dedicated to ocean stewardship through education, engagement, and action.

Our Collection

We currently serve as a home to over 50 different species of local San Luis Obispo County marine life including sea stars, crabs, swell sharks, moon jellies and, from time to time, a Giant Pacific Octopus. 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 the waters off the coast of our county, our exhibits highlight the fascinating adaptations these creatures develop to survive and thrive in the seas, just footsteps away in Avila Bay.

From hands-on experiences like the Exhibit Hall’s touch tanks and close encounters with swell sharks, to engaging school programs where students of all ages can learn to walk on sea legs aboard a fishing boat or dissect a squid in our classroom lab, the Central Coast Aquarium welcomes everyone to celebrate marine science with us!

Central Coast Aquarium, a place to learn