The SeaLife Center Makes a Big Splash ; This Rehabilitation and Research Facility Also Lets Tourists See beneath the Water's Surface

By Goldman, Marlene | The Christian Science Monitor, March 26, 2003 | Go to article overview

The SeaLife Center Makes a Big Splash ; This Rehabilitation and Research Facility Also Lets Tourists See beneath the Water's Surface


Goldman, Marlene, The Christian Science Monitor


Washed off her rookery during a major storm near Ketchikan, Alaska, a baby Steller sea lion named Faith ended up on a distant island, alone and vulnerable. But all was not lost. Researchers from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game spotted the pup and contacted the Alaska SeaLife Center. A few days later, after it was determined she had been completely abandoned, a helicopter was sent to rescue the week-old sea lion from Boat Cove.

The SeaLife Center staff taught Faith how to suckle formula from a bottle and helped restore the pup to health. She is currently being primed for possible release back to the wild.

The Alaska SeaLife Center, located on a seven-acre waterfront site in Seward, on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, focuses on the rescue and rehabilitation of orphaned or injured birds, fish, and sea mammals. But rehab is just one of the three main components of the SeaLife Center.

It's the melding of research, rehab, and education that sets the center apart from aquariums or marine entertainment facilities.

Visitors to the SeaLife Center, which primarily exhibits local, native species, enjoy aquarium displays, such as a salmon stream - replete with information about the life cycles of Alaska salmon - and a series of small aquariums that show the often-overlooked marine life found along the coastline.

Larger displays run the gamut from a thick, seaweed kelp "forest," home to rockfish and anemones, among others, to an underwater viewing gallery, where seals, sea lions, and seabirds are the main attractions.

An overlook at the center lets visitors scan nearby Resurrection Bay for sea otters, sea lions, whales, seabirds, and other species in their natural habitat. Other exhibits include a habitat for harbor seals, a species that is suffering a severe population decline and being studied at the center.

The giant Pacific octopus is one of the most popular residents of the center.

Interactive displays inside the facility offer insight into the center's research projects and help visitors keep tabs on rescued animals. Although Faith lives in a large enclosure in a quarantine area, visitors can watch the sea lion via the "Faith cam," a remote monitoring system focused on her pool.

"It provides an intimate look into daily rehabilitation efforts," says Amy Haddow, the center's education director.

The Alaska SeaLife Center opened in 1998. It was established by the Seward Association for Advancement of Marine Science, using money from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Settlement Fund. In 1989 the Exxon Valdez dumped 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound, damaging 1,500 miles of shoreline.

The fund provided $26 million to help build the $56 million facility, while the remainder was provided by grants, revenue bonds, and corporate and private donations. The city of Seward donated the site.

According to Tylan Schrock, executive director of the center, it fits well with other attractions in Seward, such as cruises to the Kenai Fjords National Park. "We show you what takes place under the water, what you don't see under your boat."

Though the center's rescue stories grab the headlines, it's the research projects that are the crux of its work. "We're not just about saving furry creatures," says Ms. Haddow. "We are about understanding the marine environment."

The main focus is trying to determine factors that have led to the drastic decline of Steller sea lions. Worldwide numbers have plummeted from 200,000 to fewer than 20,000 animals over the past few decades, with an 80 percent decline in western Alaska. The SeaLife Center spends about $5 to $6 million a year on Steller sea lion research.

One project investigates the effects of transient predatory killer whales on the sea-lion population. A recent study was based on the premise that the Stellers are declining because they're not getting the same fish they used to, namely high-fat, high-calorie herring, whose populations have dropped. …

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