Every year in March or April, scientists in biology-related fields converge in one place for five days to attend Experimental Biology. It’s a huge conference; the first time I walked in and saw the giant exhibit hall filled with posters and vendors, I was awestruck. I’d never seen so much science in one place.
Anyway, as a grad student, I got to go to the conference each year to present the results of my research. In 2015, the conference took place in Boston, and we traveled there by car in the middle of a snowstorm. The entire time it was cold and windy and rainy and generally miserable, which is unfortunate because Boston is a really cool city, but we hardly got to do any sightseeing.
In 2016, the conference took place in San Diego, so instead of snow boots and rain coats, my colleagues and I packed swim suits and dresses and headed off for some much-needed sunshine after a New England winter.
Now I know what you’re probably thinking…I was going there to attend a conference, not to go to the beach. Which is true to a certain extent. But there’s always some down time, which allows us to tour the city and enjoy the local restaurant scene. So that’s exactly what I did.
Day 1 was the one in which I had the most free time, so I headed off to the San Diego Zoo. Seeing a panda was something that had been on my bucket list for years, and the San Diego Zoo is one of only four zoos in the country that has pandas. So off I went.
Normally I’m not the biggest proponent of zoos. You know the arguments…animals living in tiny spaces, being in captivity for entertainment purposes, etc. But the San Diego Zoo is a nonprofit organization and part of one of the largest conservation agencies in the world. They’re all about education and preservation. They’re the ones who brought the California condor back from the brink of extinction (there were only 27 left in 1987). And they’re currently working around the world to preserve and protect over 100 endangered species. So it’s a zoo that I felt okay about supporting.
The San Diego Zoo is enormous. I’m not a good judge of distance but I probably walked 3-4 miles while I was there. The good thing is that they have buses and a tram to help you get from one end to the other. They also offer a 35-minute bus tour as part of your entrance fee, which is where I began. This allowed me to see a large portion of the zoo and learn a little bit about the animals and the zoo itself. For example, each polar bear gets 20 lbs of carrots per day. The elephant is the closest living relative to the hyrax. And a newborn giraffe is about 5 feet tall and weighs nearly 100 lbs.
Now you have some fun facts to share at the next party you attend.
(This is why no one invites me to parties.)
After the bus tour finished, I set off on my main mission: pandas. They’re the largest attraction of the zoo, so I actually had to wait in line to see them. But it was absolutely worth it, because it’s the most adorable thing I’ve ever seen. There’s a mama panda, Bai Yun, her baby, Xiao Liwu, and a third one who was hiding somewhere out of sight. Mama panda was relaxing in a hammock hanging from a tree, looking like she didn’t have a care in the world. Baby panda was also lounging in a hammock and munching on bamboo. It was the cutest thing, and I’m pretty sure pandas are my new favorite animal.
Below is a selection of the other animals I saw. The highlights were definitely watching the baby orangutan swing around and seeing a 1-day-old meerkat.
I headed back to the Convention Center then to attend a session… and also to take in the view from the balcony, which overlooks the water.
We headed out that evening for a late dinner at a Mexican restaurant in the Gaslamp Quarter (which is the main downtown area) called La Puerta. Being so close to the border, San Diego has a lot of Mexican restaurants, but unlike other areas I’ve ever visited, these ones are a lot more authentic.
And that completed our first day in San Diego. Our flight in the previous evening had been delayed so by the time we’d arrived at our Airbnb, it was 3am and we’d been awake for 24 hours. Needless to say, sleep was high on my priority list at this point, so after dinner we headed back for some much-needed shut-eye.