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  SCRIPPS CONTACTS: Jessica Demian
or Cindy Clark

FOR RELEASE: August 7, 2002


Nigella Hillgarth has been appointed executive director of the Birch Aquarium, Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s public science education center.

Hillgarth comes to Scripps from Tracy Aviary, a large bird park in the heart of Salt Lake City, Utah. In 1998, Hillgarth started as the curator of ornithology at the Tracy Aviary, and in 1999 she became the director of the Aviary. She holds both a B.A. hons and a doctorate in zoology, specializing in mate choice and parasites in pheasants.

“I am delighted to be here and very excited about the opportunities and challenges before me,” Hillgarth said. “This aquarium has many wonderful attributes; its size is ideal, its educational emphasis is something that I have always valued highly, and, of course, the fact that it is a part of Scripps, the world’s leading oceanographic institution, means that the aquarium experience is enhanced through the activities of Scripps’s highly regarded scientists.”

Hillgarth replaces Jeffrey Graham, who served as interim executive director of the Birch Aquarium at Scripps since July of 2000.

“I have been very impressed with the caliber of Nigella Hillgarth’s leadership,” said Scripps Director Charles Kennel. “Scripps is very fortunate to have her join the administration, and I am certain she will play a key role in the aquarium’s science and education programs as Scripps’s ‘Chief Community Officer.’”

Born in Tipperary in southern Ireland, Hillgarth was a student at Oxford University in England from 1982 to 1990 where she obtained her B.A. hons and a doctorate in zoology. She studied the interactions between physiology and behavior in pheasants in Britain, India, and Thailand, and in 1992 came to the United States to research junglefowl at the University of California, at Riverside. A year later Hillgarth moved to the University of Washington to study hormones and behavior in birds, during which she made several research trips to the Arctic. In 1997 she moved to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City to study the interactions of hormones, health, and behavior in mice.

Hillgarth became the curator of ornithology at the Tracy Aviary in 1998, during which she began research on the physiology and behavior of penguins on the coast of South America. During this time she also studied the conservation of marine birds. In 1999 Hillgarth became the director of the Tracy Aviary and focused on developing the Aviary into an institution that highlights the Great Salt Lake as a wetland of international importance.

Scripps Institution of Oceanography has operated an aquarium and museum since shortly after its founding in 1903. The institution’s founders felt a deep commitment to communicating scientific findings to the general public and expressed this commitment in the bylaws, stating the institution will build and maintain a public aquarium and museum. By 1905, early Scripps researchers moved from the boathouse of the Hotel del Coronado into a small laboratory at La Jolla Cove. There, visitors could view museum displays and containers of live marine specimens. In 1910, the institution relocated to its permanent site in La Jolla and its first building housed the aquarium and museum. In 1915, the first building devoted solely to an aquarium was built at Scripps. The aquarium contained 19 tanks ranging in size from 96 to 228 gallons, while the museum was housed on the ground floor in a building nearby. In 1951, the popular Scripps Aquarium-Museum opened and this facility served the institution for more than forty years as Scripps’s window to the ocean world.

The current Birch Aquarium at Scripps opened in 1992 and contains more than 60 marine tanks, a demonstration tide pool, a new seahorse exhibit, a motion simulator ride, and an interactive museum. The aquarium highlights the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest, the southern California coast, the habitats and creatures of the warm waters of Mexico, and the exotic species of the tropical seas. A large 70,000-gallon tank showcases a kelp forest that can be viewed from a specially designed viewing gallery.

The outdoor tide-pool plaza contains a wave machine creating natural water motion for the abundance of local marine animals that occupy the tide pool. A tide pool discovery station provides a close-up look at nearshore marine life.

The Scripps Hall of Oceanography museum is the largest oceanographic exhibition in the country. Interpretive exhibits highlight Scripps research as well as the history of oceanography. Various interactive displays help visitors explore the realms of water, air, land, and life.

Education programs aimed at furthering understanding and appreciation of the oceans are offered by the aquarium for students from pre-school through college.

The Birch Aquarium at Scripps celebrates its 10-year anniversary at its present location on September 16, 2002. The aquarium is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information on the aquarium, please visit or call 858/534-FISH.

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