By Mike Bissonette for SCN –
With the rapidly approaching onset of the tourist season, visitors and residents alike will find their attention drawn to the Alaska Sealife Center at mile zero of the Seward Highway. While many visitors might mistake the Sealife Center as Alaska’s purpose built tourist destination, it is in fact a marine research and education facility. It is also the only permanent marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation facility in the state of Alaska.
Initially conceived as an upgrade to the University of Alaska’s Seward Marine Center research facilities, the Alaska SeaLife Center was brought to life by the 1989 Exxon Valdez tragedy. In its wake and the subsequent criminal settlement, the Alaska Legislature appropriated funds to the City of Seward to develop the SeaLife center into a “marine mammal rehabilitation center and as a center for education and research related to the natural resources” injured by the oil spill.
The Seward local Government and community efforts stepped in to raise sufficient funds to build the Sealife Center. Construction took 3 years to complete and had its grand opening on the Second of May 1998.
Among the opportunities for visitors to the Sealife Center, the Otter Encounters Tour is a likely hit for the upcoming season. For the first time, visitors will be allowed into the Center’s general admission areas and “I Sea U” overlook. This encounter will be available for a limited time this spring.
All the otters for the encounter were rescued after being stranded at various locations across South Central Alaska. The Otter encounter will be led by expert animal care givers and last about 30 minutes. Encounters will include feeding or animal enrichment session in the outdoor otter pool.
The Marine Mammal Encounter will be returning this May, allowing visitors to see how the SeaLife Center animal care team cares for, feeds and trains the harbor seals. The harbor seals can range from 4 to 6 feet long and from 120-330 pounds. The SeaLife Center keeps the harbor seals separate from their Steller sea lion population due to seal lion predation of harbor seals in the wild.
For the more avian minded visitors, the Sealife Center is bringing back the Puffin Encounter. This encounter is an hour long tour of the aviary, introducing both birds and their keepers, and teaching about the research and breeding programs.
A popular returning tour is the hands on ’Octopus Encounter’ where visitors can ‘shake hands’ with the Giant Pacific Octopus. A native of Alaska’s waters, they can grow up to 100 pounds in length and 98 inches in length. In spite of their size and strength, the octopus is a fan favorite in part for its ability to pass through a two inch hole.
As a part of the SeaLife Center’s expanding partnership with the Seward community, the “Whale of a Weekend’ encounter with Major Marine tours will begin later this month.
The rescue mission of the Sealife Center is a continuous endeavor. However, as the seasonal rush of tourists surges, so does the wildlife rescue mission. It may also see swells in activity when there is an unusual event like an oil spill.
The focus of the rescue mission is on the survival and reduction of health risks to animals, humans, and the ocean environment during response to, and rehabilitation and release of, stranded marine mammals. This is aided by collecting life history, biological, and biomedical data from stranded marine animals, alive and dead.
It is important that anyone observing marine mammals must remain at a distance, and must not disturb the animal or change its natural behavior or risk violating the Marine Mammal protection act. If marine mammals or sea birds are observed in distress, the SeaLife Center can be contacted at their 24-hour hotline, 1-888-774-SEAL. The public is encouraged to report stranded marine mammals or birds, and it encourages people who have found a stranded or sick marine animal to avoid touching or approaching the animal.
As the season picks up, visitors and residents in the Seward area will observe the continued development of the Sealife Center as a pillar of the community. The Sealife Center will continue to contribute to Seward, the state of Alaska, and the scientific community through its mission to generate and share “scientific knowledge to promote understanding and stewardship of Alaska’s marine ecosystems.”