Living Here Guide

Learning about sea life up close in Avila Beach

Avila Beach resident Debbie Collins holds a bat star at the Central Coast Aquarium, where she is a member of the board of directors.
Avila Beach resident Debbie Collins holds a bat star at the Central Coast Aquarium, where she is a member of the board of directors.

When Debbie Collins was growing up in Redondo Beach, her family owned six freshwater-fish aquariums in their home near King’s Harbor. Her girlhood dream was to one day own a saltwater tank.

Today, Collins is a member of the board of directors for Central Coast Aquarium, which features more than 50 species of local sea life, including octopuses, jellyfish, sharks, sea stars and anemones in an aqua-blue building just steps from the Avila Beach Boardwalk. The family-friendly aquarium specializes in providing hands-on activities for all ages and spring break and summer camps for kids.

“My brother had a 100-gallon tank in his room when we were growing up, so in a way, I guess I now have him beat,” Collins said.

Collins was introduced to the Central Coast Aquarium three years ago by a neighbor, Ron Mohl, who at that time served on the board of directors.

“Ron was working on their annual fundraiser and had a lot of questions, since at that time I was on the board of directors at the Monday Club in San Luis Obispo, where I served as ways and means chairperson and was responsible for their fundraising events,” Collins said. “I met with the aquarium executive director, Tara Malzone, and immediately was impressed with her enthusiasm and passion for this little Avila Beach aquarium. I knew this would a new passion for me.”

Collins took on the successful annual fundraiser with the help of the aquarium staff and volunteers. The fundraiser, known as “Catch,” is held in September under a clear tent at the end of Harford Pier.

“This event is vital to the aquarium because it brings in funds that helps with the daily expenses that keeps the museum afloat,” she said. “We have so much support from the community, and that makes it so exciting for us and our future.”

Collins and the board are still considering expanding by opening an aquarium in Morro Bay.

“The Morro Bay site isn’t set in stone yet,” Collins said. “But the possibilities of expanding to the Morro Bay site is exciting, but this is a long process and we are still working on the funding and a feasibility study.”

Collins owns the Del Monte Cafe in San Luis Obispo, which she still runs with her son, Travis. Two years ago, she opened the Southern Station in Santa Margarita with her daughter, Carrie. She lives in Avila Beach with her husband, Jay Johnson, and is a member of the Avila Beach Yacht Club.

“I love the area and I love that I am able to able to sail and work in such a great environment,” she said. “My passions are the restaurants and the aquarium. How lucky am I?”


Population: 1,218 (including Avila Valley)

Key employers:

• PG&E

• Port San Luis

• Avila Beach Golf Resort

• Hotel and restaurant industries

Community events:

• Farmers Market, Friday evenings until early fall, 2016