Seward, Alaska: Alaska SeaLife Center

Harbor seal, Alaska SeaLife Center
Harbor seal, Alaska SeaLife Center

From the parking lot outside of the Alaska SeaLife Center, one can hear a variety of sounds; the sea birds screech and call, and the sea lions, if they’re outside, bark raucously.  Eagles, which often perch on posts outside the center, may add their plaintive call to the din.

All manner of sea creatures have found a home in Seward’s SeaLife Center, and the cacophony outside the complex gives visitors a preview of what’s to come.  We became members shortly after moving to Seward and have enjoyed frequent visits ever since, looking in on the residents and learning more about the amazing place in which we live.  The SeaLife Center does important work, not only educating the public through the state’s only public aquarium but also undertaking marine research and wildlife rescue and rehabilitation.

A facility born out of tragedy

Oil-covered sea birds after the Exxon Valdez spill (Source: State of Alaska vis Wikimedia Commons) 

The Alaska SeaLife Center was created in response to an immense environmental disaster.

On March 29, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck the Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, ripping its hull and unleashing almost 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaskan waters.  This was the largest single oil spill in U.S. waters until Deepwater Horizon surpassed it in 2010.   Exxon and the Alyeska Pipeline Company were unable to contain the spill early on, and a large storm sprung up that made containment attempts moot.  The oil spread far and wide, and well over 1,000 miles of pristine coastline were soiled.

Dead sea otter covered in oil (By USFWS [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
In addition to the spoilage of  Alaska’s coastline, hundreds of thousands of animals died, and the Exxon Valdez disaster highlighted two major problems.  First, the state did not have enough resources to treat all of the animals that were injured, sickened, or orphaned because of the spill.  Second, scientists didn’t have enough baseline information about Alaska’s coastal ecosystem to predict just how extensively it would be affected by this, or any, environmental catastrophe.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks had been operating the Seward Marine Center, a research facility, since its inception in 1970 and had wanted to expand its research capabilities for years, but the funding was never there.  The oil spill disaster changed that.  Exxon spent billions of dollars in Alaska, first in cleanup efforts and later as reparations to communities affected by the spill.  Some of that money went to Seward.  Funding from Exxon’s settlement, along with public bonds and fundraising, provided the money needed to build a brand-new facility.  Construction on the SeaLife Center started in 1995 and was completed in May of 1998.

Three functions

The SeaLife Center provides services in three different areas—wildlife rescue, scientific research, and public outreach.

Wildlife Response
Aku the walrus, Alaska SeaLife Center
Aku the walrus being tended to in the I.Sea.U.

In keeping with its history, an important part of the SeaLife Center’s mission is to care for injured or vulnerable marine animals.  The center’s Wildlife Response Team, which includes veterinary staff, animal husbandry, and researchers, are prepared to aid stranded, injured, sick, or orphaned wildlife.  Their duties are performed under the regulation of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and since its inception the team has rescued a variety of animals, including sea otters and seals and, recently, a highly endangered beluga whale calf (more on that below).  The center’s online Rescue and Rehab Journal provides a look at the animals that have been rescued from 2013 to present.

The most recent recovery was that of a sea otter pup found unresponsive on a Homer beach on January 1.  Named Bishop after the beach on which he was found, the little guy’s fur was completely dry, an indication that he had been stranded for some time, and he was dehydrated and malnourished.  The Wildlife Response Team transported him to the SeaLife Center and provided immediate medical attention, including IV fluids and tube feedings, in its intensive care facility (known as the I.Sea.U).  Bishop is making a good recovery, gaining weight and now able to groom himself.  We were at the center this weekend and saw him swimming and playing and, as you would expect, looking utterly adorable.  You can read the full story about his rescue here.

The Wildlife Response Team also acts as a coroner of sorts, investigating the deaths of marine mammals found in the wild.  In 2017, for example, a dead humpback whale washed ashore onto a beach in Anchorage’s Kincaid Park.  The cause of death was unknown, and staff from the SeaLife Center assisted in the necropsy.  (I haven’t found updates as to the results of the examination).  And in 2017, the corpse of a Pacific sleeper shark was discovered along the shores of Resurrection Bay.  It was a female, ten feet in length, and—while they point out this is pure speculation—it may have been as much as 80 years old!  It apparently died from a sequence of infections that ended with its death from sepsis.   You can read the fascinating story about the team’s recovery of the shark and the subsequent necropsy here, but be aware that the pictures are fairly graphic.

Science and Research

Another critical component of Alaska SeaLife Center’s mission is research.   It works closely with the Seward Marine Center, located next door, and the aim of their research is to obtain both a baseline understanding of and advanced scientific data regarding Alaska’s arctic and subarctic marine ecosystems.  The facility is home to various scientists and also offers accommodations to visiting scientists.  Seward is also homeport to the R/V Sikuliaq, an ice-capable research vessel.

Having a thorough understanding of Alaska’s marine ecosystem is critical for many reasons.  First, Alaska has over 33,000 miles of coastline, 47,000 miles if you include the land surrounding the state’s many islands, sounds, inlets, and bays.  That’s more than the lower 48 states combined!  It’s also the only state to have coastlines on 2 different oceans, the Pacific and the Arctic.  And it’s on the front lines of climate change.  All of these factors make it critical that we have in-depth knowledge of Alaska’s unique ecosystem and challenges, and Seward’s scientific facilities play an important part in this research.

The aquarium
Alaska SeaLife Center
Me, inadvertently caught in the reflection of one of the salmon fish tanks
Tufted puffin

While research and rescue are essential elements of the center’s mission, the third component, public outreach through Alaska’s only aquarium, is equally important, as this is the only part of the SeaLife Center that most people will see.  On display are all manner of Alaskan sea life.  Aquatic birds such as puffins and eiders roost and nest in an artificial rocky cliff.  Visitors can watch harbor seals and enormous Steller sea lions swim in pools filled with water from Resurrection Bay.  Many varieties of fish, as well as invertebrates such as sea urchins, sea stars, and a giant Pacific octopus, are on display.  The center has educational exhibits and videos and also offers behind-the-scenes encounters for an additional fee.

Alaska Sealife Center, bird aviary
The seabird habitat. Birds roost in the rocky crags
Alaska SeaLife Center
Several FUNKY-looking Alaskan fish species, including yellow Irish lord, bigmouth sculpin, and great sculpin
SeaLife Center
Alaskan king crab and saffron cod
Alaska SeaLife Center
The Discovery Touch pool, which allows people to touch sea urchins, sea stars, and other small sea creatures
Alaska SeaLife Center
Sea creatures in the Discovery Touch Pool.  The tanks are filled with water from Resurrection Bay; needless to say, that water is rather cold
Harbor seal, Alaska SeaLife Center
Harbor seal

Not surprisingly, many of the animals at the SeaLife Center were rescued and are non-releasable.  Whenever possible, the center returns rehabilitated animals to the wild, but not all of them are fit to go home.  Some are too young when rescued and haven’t yet learned to live on their own; others are so critically injured that, even after rehabilitation, they would be unable to care for themselves.  When an animal is unable to return to the wild, it will either remain at the SeaLife Center or go to a suitable home in another facility.

According to a staff member I talked to, all of the harbor seals in the facility are rescued, and the center also houses several Arctic species of ice seal, two of which are endangered, and NOAA regulations do not allow these seals to be displayed publicly.

Harbor seals, Alaska Sealife Center
Resident harbor seals in their SeaLife Center habitat
Alaska SeaLife Center
Steller sea lions in their habitat, Alaska SeaLife Center
Sea lion video feed, Chiswell Islands
Antennae used for the SeaLife Center’s video feed in the Chiswell Islands, Gulf of Alaska. We saw this antennae, and the wild sea lions it was being used to monitor, when we took a Kenai Fjords boat tour

Most of the Steller sea lions, on the other hand, were born in captivity.  Steller sea lions are endangered, and the SeaLife Center studies its residents, which includes a large male, Pilot, and two females, to learn more about the species.  It also has a Steller sea lion breeding program, and four pups have been born here, most recently in 2017.   The breeding program gives scientists the opportunity to better understand the life cycle of Steller sea lions as they grow and mature.

Scientists at the center also study sea lions in the wild, using remotely-controlled video feeds  in the Gulf of Alaska to monitor these magnificent creatures while they’re in their rookeries and haul outs.

Eider, Alaska SeaLIfe Cener
King eider in the seabird habitat. What a spectacular bird!

The SeaLife Center also studies eiders.  There are four species of this gorgeous northern sea duck worldwide, and all of them can be found in Alaska.  The SeaLife Center has bred captive flocks of both Steller’s and spectacled eiders in order to study these two species, which nest in some of the most remote locations in Alaska and both of which are considered vulnerable.  The goals of these studies are to better understand the species’ breeding patterns and to reintroduce captive-bred birds into the wild.

Alaska SeaLife Center
Eider breeding pools

High-profile patients

In 2017, the SeaLife Center received two notable patients—notable because they’re animals that the center doesn’t typically see: a Pacific walrus and a beluga whale, both babies, both stranded, and both in bad shape.  The Wildlife Response Team rescued them and brought them back to the center for rehabilitation.

Aku the walrus
Aku the walrus, Alaska SeaLife Center
Aku the walrus, napping in the outdoor pool area

In June 2017, the crew of a Bering Sea gold mining barge discovered a young walrus calf that had hauled out on their boat.  The crew called the SeaLife Center’s stranded marine animal hotline, and the facility sent a marine wildlife observer to monitor the situation.  The walrus was left undisturbed in the hope that his mother would return for him, but when 24+ hours passed and there was no sign of her, the Wildlife Response Team went into action.  They first consulted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has authority over walruses, as well as the Eskimo Walrus Commission.  Authorities agreed that the animal, which was thought to be about two weeks old, could not survive on its own and should be removed from the wild.

The team transferred the 120-pound calf to the SeaLife Center, where he was treated in the I.Sea.U. for dehydration and deconditioning.

Aku the walrus, Alaska SeaLife Center
Aku the walrus being fed by a staff member. Look at the size of that bottle!

Walruses are very social creatures, and the calf, eventually named Aku (an Iñupiat word that means “stern of the boat”), stuck close to his caregivers.  There was someone with him at all times to keep him company and offer him snuggles.  We frequently went to the center while he was in residence, and many times he was stretched out on a staff member’s lap.  The Anchorage Daily News dubbed it “round the clock care and cuddles.”

Aku the walrus, Alaska SeaLife Center
Snuggling with a baby walrus…what a tough job!

The SeaLife center had great success in rehabilitating Aku but could not accommodate him long-term.  He stayed in Seward until October, when he was moved to Sea World Orlando and placed with an intact walrus family, including a calf near his age and two adults.

Tyonek the baby beluga

Tyonek the beluga whale, Alaska SeaLife Center

The second notable rescue would come a few months later, in September.  A NOAA law enforcement officer, out on helicopter patrol with an Alaska Wildlife Troopers pilot, spotted a lone, stranded beluga whale on a Cook Inlet beach.  No other belugas were seen in the area.  The two men attempted unsuccessfully to encourage the calf to return to the water, so a SeaLife Center veterinarian was brought in to assess its condition.  The calf had been stranded for some time and was dehydrated, sunburned, and weak.  It had minor wounds on its flukes—perhaps from a bird pecking on it—but no significant trauma or illness.  There was no sign of its mother, and it was clear that this young whale wouldn’t survive on its own.

There are five distinct beluga whale populations in Alaska, and the Cook Inlet population, from which this whale came, is critically endangered.  All decisions surrounding the calf, therefore, had to go through NOAA.  After the veterinarian and law enforcement officers received authorization from NOAA, the calf was flown in the helicopter to Anchorage and from there transported to Seward via truck.

Tyonek the beluga whale, Alaska SeaLife Center

Beluga calf rescues are very rare, and this “little” fellow (he was 5’6″ in length and 142 pounds when he arrived) was going to need intensive and highly skilled care.  Aquariums around the country offered to help.  Within 24 hours, beluga experts from Atlanta, Chicago, Vancouver, San Diego, and Mystic, Connecticut, began arriving in Alaska, and some of them stayed for weeks to assist with the rehabilitation process.  Staff worked continuously to stabilize the whale, bottle feeding him every 2-4 hours and, in the first hours, monitoring closely to prevent him from sinking and drowning, which can happen when cetaceans are weak and fatigued.

Under this constant care, the whale stabilized and progressed, becoming the first Cook Inlet beluga calf to survive a rescue.  Staff named him Tyonek, which means “little chief” in Athabascan.  He was very social and adapted well to being in the care of his human caregivers, head butting them and communicating to them with chirps and clicks.

Because of Tyonek’s endangered status and critical medical needs, NOAA did not immediately allow the public to view him.  It was over a month, in fact, before we got our first glimpse him, and, oh my gosh, it was worth the wait.  He was unbearably cute.  Dale and I returned to the center every few weeks, attending the educational talks and watching with envy as staff bottle fed and played with him.

Tyonek the beluga whale, Alaska SeaLife Center

Here he is playing peek-a-boo with a blue mat that was floating in the pool:

Tyonek the beluga whale, Alaska SeaLife Center

Here’s video of him playing with the mat:

Tyonek made great progress, but, like Aku, the SeaLife Center wouldn’t be able to accommodate him as he grew bigger.  What, then, would happen to him?

The decision regarding Tyonek’s future was in NOAA’S hands.  Everyone hoped that he could return home, but this was unlikely given that beluga calves in the wild stay with their mothers for two years.  In the end, NOAA’s decision was no surprise: Tyonek would remain in captivity.  In a statement, the organization said, “Tyonek was less than a month old when he stranded, is nutritionally and socially dependent, and lacks both survival and socialization skills needed to be successful on his own in the wild. It is likely his mother either abandoned him or died, so reuniting him with her was not an option. A permanent place at a marine mammal facility provides Tyonek with a second chance at survival and social development with other belugas.”

NOAA selected SeaWorld San Antonio as Tyonek’s new home because this facility has a population of belugas that includes both adult females and young calves.  Tyonek will soon be moving to our old stomping grounds.  It’s been many years, but Dale and I have been to SeaWorld San Antonio dozens of times; in fact, long before we saw belugas in the wild, we saw them at SeaWorld.  We were members and loved going as often as possible to experience the performances and up-close viewings.  My feelings about SeaWorld changed after learning that, for many years, the organization acquired orcas and other animals from the wild.  When you take an orca from its pod, you’re essentially ripping apart a family.  It was heartbreaking to contemplate.  Fortunately,  SeaWorld hasn’t removed orcas from the wild in almost forty years, and they’re phasing out their orca program, which is very good news.  And the fact remains that SeaWorld also provides valuable care to rescued animals, as evidenced by the homes that they have given to both Aku and Tyonek.  We may have to stop in and say hello to Tyonek next time we’re in the neighborhood.

~~~~~

One of my favorite things at the SeaLife Center is watching the Steller sea lions swim laps in their pool.  I am mesmerized by them:

Sea lions, Alaska SeaLife Center

Last year, I wrote a few posts about this magnificent species, including one elaborating on why they’re so special and another about why they’re so endangered.  The first thing you notice is how enormous they are—they’re the biggest of the sea lions—and yet they move through the water with a speed and grace that takes my breath away.  They remind me of graceful birds and give the impression of soaring.

In the wild, Steller sea lions cover a large territory and have haul outs all up and down the Alaskan coast.  Of course, I’d rather that the sea lions of Alaska SeaLife Center were free and roaming the Gulf of Alaska, just as I wish Tyonek and Aku were still swimming alongside their mothers.  But that’s not the case for the animals at the SeaLife Center, and if it weren’t for this facility, these animals wouldn’t exist.  I get a great deal of pleasure from these sea creatures; it’s a thrill to see them up close.  I also admire the center for its mission, which includes providing many animals a second chance while also increasing our understanding of Alaska’s diverse, critical, and amazing marine ecosystem.


SeaLife Center Information

The Alaska SeaLife Center is located at Mile 0 of the Seward Highway.  It’s open year-round, but the hours vary by season.  Please see the center’s website for pricing, events, tours, and hours.  Parking is free all year.  The Center is wheelchair and stroller accessible.

The Haul Out Cafe provides snacks and drinks during the summer only.  Never fear–two of our favorite restaurants are within yards of the center and offer year-round (The Cookery) or almost year-round (Zudy’s) service.

The SeaLife Center is a private, not-for-profit research center and public aquarium.  It receives some funding from federal and state sources and of course earns revenue from entrance fees and visitor purchases, but some programs, such as the sea otter rescue, have no official funding.  Please consider making a donation.

The specifics:
  • 301 Railway Ave, Seward, AK 99664
  • Phone: (907) 224-6300
  • Toll Free: (800) 224-2525
  • Website: Alaska SeaLife Center

If you see a stranded or injured marine animal or bird, please do not approach it.  Note the location, continue to observe if possible,  and call the Stranded Marine Animal Hotline at:   1-888-774-SEAL (7325).  Read here for their stranding guidelines. 


If you want to see photos of these animals in the wild, check out the posts we wrote about our Kenai Fjords boat trip (May 2017).  We saw Steller sea lions, harbor seals, and puffins as well as orcas, humpback whales and even black bears.  And here’s a post about the adorable sea otters that frequent the Seward small boat harbor.

For further reading