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Launching Seward's Sea Life Center.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill hadn't even happened yet when a group of folks concerned about the welfare of Alaska's marine mammals and other forms of sea life began exploring the possibility of opening a world-class marine science center in Seward. Their thinking went something like this: Alaska claims 38 percent of all the coastline in the United States, and its waters host one of the largest concentrations of marine mammals and seabirds in the world.

The well-being of those creatures plays an integral role in the state's popular (and lucrative) fishing and tourism industries, but because of population declines, several of the species found in and around the state's waters are now classified as threatened. Among those are the bow-head whale, Aleutian Canadian goose and the Stellar sea lion, a species whose numbers have declined more than 50 percent in the last 12 years.

The clincher, however, was the realization that, despite the state's abundance of and reliance on marine populations, Alaska doesn't have a facility in which to care for injured animals, to study them in a controlled setting or to observe them in their undersea environment.

Then the Exxon Valdez spilled almost 11 million gallons of crude oil in Prince William Sound, and volunteers from around the country came to help wash oiled sea otters and stranded birds. A makeshift otter rehabilitation center was set up in Seward.

When volunteers and animal specialists had time to catch their breaths, they came to the same conclusion: Alaska needs a professionally staffed, well-designed and adequately funded facility in which to conduct rehabilitation, research and public education. The proposed Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward had gained the momentum and focus it needed.

Now, more than three years after the 1989 spill, the non-profit Seward Association for the Advancement of Marine Science (SAAMS) has unveiled plans for a $35 million to $40 million, privately funded facility in which to address all three objectives. The project, say those involved, is a natural for Alaska and its setting on Seward's Resurrection Bay is ideal. When completed, the facility will be one of the world's first marine attractions specifically built to accommodate all three activities.

"We think we're on to a real winner," says Bill Noll, former Seward mayor and a member of the SAAMS board of directors. "This is far from someone's bright idea. This is real."

Adds Assistant City Manager Mike Yanez, "Everybody thinks it's a great idea. ... There are a lot of things in our favor that would contribute to the success of this project. It's a natural for us."

Noll says the group's planning has deliberately been "close to the vest," allowing members to do the credible research and planning necessary. As a result, SAAMS has developed "good designs, good numbers and good concepts," he adds.

This spring, the group began presenting those designs and concepts to the public by speaking to professional and civic groups and by distributing a glossy, oversized booklet filled with color photographs and conceptual drawings. The drawings were done by Cambridge Seven Associates, an award-winning Massachusetts firm noted for its design of similar projects, including the New England, Denver and Toronto aquariums, as well as an aquarium in Osaka, Japan, and exhibits at the London zoo.

Depending on funding, a feasibility study on Alaska's Sea Life Center should be completed by year's end, with ground breaking likely next spring. SAAMS hopes to open the facility in 1996, says Noll.

Bobby Poole, one of two Cambridge Seven principals working on the sea life center, says once it's completed the center may well serve as a new prototype for other marine mammal attractions worldwide. Until now, most aquariums, including the Monterey Aquarium, have been built initially as public attractions, with research or rehabilitation facilities squeezed in later. SAAMS is to be applauded, says Poole, for planning a facility that will accommodate all three elements.

For those who study Alaska's marine mammals, the center will provide greater access to the animals they study and will greatly reduce the need to travel Outside and around the world to conduct necessary research. Michael Castellini, assistant professor of marine science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, says the need for the center is obvious.

"There are absolutely no facilities whatsoever in Alaska to hold any animals for any purpose," he points out. "Anybody who wants to do any (controlled) work with Alaska marine mammals can't work in Alaska."

Scientists, Castellini among them, currently must conduct all local research in the field, a costly, time-consuming and dangerous practice. Controlled studies and laboratory work must be done elsewhere. The Sea Life Center will change that and also will attract scientists from around the world interested in Alaska marine life.

Castellini, who is working on the conceptual drawings from a scientist's point of view, says colleagues from New Zealand, Australia and Europe have indicated an eagerness to conduct research in Seward. "It's sort of like people are lined up waiting to come up and work," adds Castellini.

The center will be built on nearly 11 acres of oceanfront property at the southern end of Seward's business district and next to a pedestrian park on Seward's eastern shore. Planners and others involved with the proposed project hope the new sea life center -- which will include a 250- to 300-seat auditorium, gift shops and public plaza -- will help reverse the northward trend of development and lure people back into the district. Donated by the city, the property is valued at slightly more than $2 million and is adjacent to the University of Alaska Fairbanks' existing Seward Marine Center.

The proposed 140,500-square-foot center will include both indoor and outdoor exhibits and will be open year-round. Among the outdoor exhibits will be a 6,000-square-foot otter pond and man-made seabird and Stellar sea lion rookeries totaling another 17,000 square feet. Resurrection Bay and the Kenai Mountains will provide the backdrop.

Indoor exhibits will include a giant king crab tank sculptured to imitate the ocean's natural environment. While viewing king crabs, visitors also will be able to look through separate, adjacent tanks, each containing a segment of the ocean's population. Tom Smith, technical advisor and assistant director for marine and coastal operations at the Institute of Marine Sciences' Seward Marine Center, says the overall impression will be as if one were looking at the entire ocean in miniature.

Lower-level exhibits will provide researchers and visitors with a rare view of the underwater ballets performed by sea lions, otters and seabirds. Smith says a similar exhibit in Osaka has been particularly popular.

SAAMS estimates annual operating costs for the center to be $3.5 million. Roughly 30 to 35 people, the bulk of them scientists and animal experts, are expected to be employed at the facility year-round. As many as 300 seasonal jobs also could be created in Seward and throughout Southcentral Alaska as a result of the facility.

As of spring, SAAMS had received some $2.1 million in in-kind donations (including the land) and had raised $115,000. Noll says directors will avoid reliance on declining state capital funds and instead will seek funding from a variety of private and public sources, including organizations and foundations in Alaska and Outside. SAAMS organizers are confident that funding is available and that the multifaceted center is a project that will appeal to a variety of sponsors.

Smith says initial research indicates the center will need to attract 300,000 visitors a year to help meet expenses. That target is achievable, according to Smith, Noll and Cambridge Seven's Poole. Figures from the National Park Service indicate that nearly 108,000 people visited Seward's Kenai Fjords National Park in 1991, while Chugach State Park officials estimated that 600,000 visitors went to Portage Valley.

Poole says it's not unusual for marine-based attractions to exceed the number of anticipated yearly visitors by 50 percent to 100 percent -- or more. He points to the Osaka aquarium as an example. Designed for 2 million visitors a year, the wildly popular attraction drew a whopping 5 million visitors during its first year of operation.

"People find this kind of museum very attractive," says Poole. "If it's special and really wonderful, then people will come."

Noll and Yanez scoff at any suggestion that such a facility is too big, too grand for Seward. "Seward thinks it can do anything," says Yanez. "We feel the sea life center will be a year-round boost to our economy."

Says an almost-indignant Noll, "The attitude of that town is quite cosmopolitan. ... We'll get this done."
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Title Annotation:Seward Association for the Advancement of Marine Science
Author:Hill, Robin Mackey
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Jul 1, 1992
Previous Article:Crowley centennial.
Next Article:Kenai Peninsula.

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