The SeaLife Center makes a big splash

This rehabilitation and research facility also lets tourists see beneath the water's surface

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. The ultimate purpose of this test was to gather enough information to help resource managers sustain both fisheries and animal populations. Early results indicate diet may not be the reason for the Steller population decline, but may be a more complicated issue.

The center houses three Stellers in a 162,000-gallon habitat that resembles the species' native surroundings in Resurrection Bay. All get to snack on restaurant-quality fish purchased, or occasionally donated, for the marine inhabitants.

Some species, such as pigeon guillemots and harlequin ducks, are studied to see if they're still suffering from the effects of the Exxon Valdez spill. "They're not sure whether the problems with the populations are related to the oil spill or a shift in food availability due to climactic changes," says Haddow. "Some of the research still focuses on the question, 'Are animals still ingesting oil, or are there other factors?' "

The population of the pigeon guillemots was 20,000 to 30,000 in the 1970s. After the oil spill, censuses found the population had dropped to 10,000 to 15,000, but it appears that the decline in numbers began before the spill. However, unlike most other seabirds affected by the spill, the pigeon guillemot population in Prince William Sound has not increased.

The question for researchers at the center is whether the continuing low numbers are because of factors unrelated to the spill - such as a shift in the near-shore ecosystem of the Gulf of Alaska - or from the impact of the spill itself.

Guillemots feed near the shore where oiled sediments are present, which could be affecting their prey or the birds themselves. Scientists collected eggs from the field three years in a row and raised chicks at the center to check the diet factor. Chicks were fed low doses of crude oil to see if that was the problem. Results were inconclusive.

There is also an attempt to restore a colony of pigeon guillemots in Resurrection Bay with birds raised from eggs at the SeaLife Center.

Thirteen pigeon guillemots from the experiment now share space with tufted puffins, common murres, red-legged kittiwakes, and black oystercatchers in a seabird exhibit at the center.

Though much of the research takes place out in the field or behind closed doors, visitors can watch researchers at work in two locations.

In addition, behind-the-scenes tours are held daily. Occasionally, it's possible to meet the researchers during these tours, which are led by the education staff. The educators are trained to translate the researcher's work to the public, but Haddow says, "If we see the researchers during the tours, we'll to try to flag them down."

This month the Sealife Center opened a 2,200-square-foot exhibit focusing on the diversity of wildlife in the Bering Sea. "The richness of the region's marine life is not usually recognized," says Haddow, "but half the seafood sold in the United States is from the Bering Sea."

The exhibit's focus is not only on the wealth of life in the Bering Sea, but also on how changes over recent decades are affecting human and animal populations.

Titled "The Bering Sea: Abundance and Change," the exhibit features a cylindrical, floor-to-ceiling tank filled with fish found in the Bering Sea. Displays also include maps, a video montage, and ecosystem puzzles.

Children can play in and around a wooden fishing skiff that sits between massive photographic panels, creating the feeling of being at sea. Which seems just right for a sealife center.

• For more information, call 800 224-2525 or (907) 224-6300, or e-mail visit@alaskasealife.org.

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