The highlight of the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward may well be a passing fancy -- catching the eye of a Steller sea lion or harbor seal as it swims past a large picture window.
''They are such graceful creatures under sea,'' said Donna Harris, the center's marketing director.
Huge windows on the bottom floor of the center put three 90,000- to 162,000-gallon pools at eye level, where visitors can watch marine mammals swim and seabirds catch fish. The pools are the centerpiece of the center but not the first thing visitors see.
Just inside the front door are hand-carved, life-size models of Dall's porpoises chasing herring and squids, hanging from the ceiling just above the Kenai Peninsula's first escalator.
After taking the escalator, stairs or elevator to the second floor, visitors will see an exhibit illustrating the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
A large hallway then opens, where people can look at the Alaska Waters Gallery, a series of tanks containing such things as a kelp forest and some of the fish that inhabit it.
Another tank contains starfish, sea urchins and other intertidal animals. Called the Discovery Zone, it is where schoolchildren will touch the animals and examine them with magnifying glasses.
From there, visitors can look down on the pools of the research deck, where animals will be kept while they are being studied.
The upper floor also looks out over the top part of the three large marine mammal and bird enclosures, built to resemble the mussel-crusted rookeries of the Kenai Fjords.
A stairway down leads to huge windows that let people see the enclosures from below. Also downstairs are other tanks containing a giant octopus, wolf eel and crabs.
The center will be open from 9 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily between May 3 and Sept. 21. Fall and winter hours will be reduced. Admission is $12.50 for adults and $10 for children ages 4 to 16.
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