Plastic tarps, sawdust and the metallic ring of circular saws have been a fact of life for the Alaska SeaLife Center's 50 or so employees since they descended upon their new building about a month ago.
They've dodged ladders, detoured around wet paint and ducked packs of touring schoolchildren while trying to figure out how to convert an ambitious concept into hard reality.
''We had to quickly shift from construction to operations,'' said Pat Albaugh, the center's chief financial officer.
Albaugh, a former Subway of Alaska financial controller, stood in a large carpeted hall next to a towering window overlooking the center's research deck, where a female sea lion sunned herself next to a pool. He compared the last month to a juggling act in which as many as eight events are going on at once.
Construction workers continue working, new employees are setting up offices and learning to use equipment, researchers are moving in and children from schools across Southcentral Alaska already are visiting -- with some camping out at the center overnight.
''All these things didn't exist a month ago,'' Albaugh said. ''At the same time, we've got animals flying in from all over the country.''
Some of those animals, such as three Steller sea lions newly arrived from Vancouver, British Columbia, occasionally had a difficult time with construction crews working nearby, said marine mammal keeper Dennis Christen. When frightened, their eyes would bug out, and they would swim deep in the outdoor pool, only coming up to breathe.
He would load them into wheeled cages and move them to alternate pools farther from the noise.
On the whole, he said, they've handled it well. ''These guys are getting desensitized to jackhammers and grinders,'' Christen said, shaking his head.
Most of the other adventures of moving in have been traumatic to humans. On the first day the center's telephone system was installed, for instance, every new call would ring at a different desk, said Donna Harris, marketing director.
Most of that craziness has calmed down, she said.
Come Saturday, the scene will be one of balloons, live music and food booths as a daylong festival kicks off the opening of the Western Hemisphere's first cold-water marine research facility.
Most of the SeaLife Center's premier exhibits featuring marine mammals and sea birds will be up and running -- some just barely -- in time for the party, said Kim Sundberg, the center's executive director.
As might be expected in a new building housing tens of thousands of gallons of water, the biggest single technical glitch has been plumbing, Sundberg said.
Besides the center's three core habitat pools, there are smaller tanks containing most of the life found in Resurrection Bay, such as flatfish, jellyfish, octopus, crab and starfish.
A spaghetti-like maze of pipes, computer-controlled pumps and filters keeps the water circulating.
''Anyone who's done a plumbing job knows the task is 40 percent construction and 60 percent fixing leaks,'' Sundberg said. The SeaLife Center is no different. ''Going around and fixing the leaks is a big effort right now,'' he said.
Perhaps the most troublesome leak has been in one of the three premier tanks, the 105,000-gallon sea bird habitat. When it works, murres and pigeon guillemots will nest in its rocks and dive in its deep pool.
Birds destined for the habitat have been kept in a temporary aviary near the center while construction crews pinpoint pesky leaks. Parts of its massive concrete tub may not have sealed correctly, Sundberg said.
Staffers hoped the birds will enter that habitat today.
''It's a late go, but it's a go,'' Harris said. ''We're still considering it a work in progress.''
Construction crews were supposed to be mainly finished on the SeaLife Center by Feb. 5. But the detail work and complexity proved overwhelming. By the end of March, the center staff began moving in while construction still was going on.
With the Saturday opening date approaching, they just worked around the clutter, Sundberg said.
The SeaLife Center has been a juggling act from the beginning, said its architect, Tom Livingston, of Livingston Slone Architects of Anchorage.
Architects know how to design research labs, and they can plan visitor centers. But blending the two in one facility proved to be a challenge, Livingston said.
The result is a space in which researchers' offices open into public hallways. Visitors will be able to look directly into a laboratory. Some have compared it to a live version of Discovery Channel.
The center is ''almost a 50-50 split'' between a research and visitor facility, Livingston said.''And that, to the best of our knowledge, is totally unique on the planet.''
That odd concept has helped lure some creative and experienced people who enjoy the challenge, he said. Albaugh, the financial controller, said some employees have taken pay cuts to work at the SeaLife Center.
''This is a dream'' he said. Where else can someone take a coffee break by watching seals and sea lions? ''It's not your regular nine-to-five grind. This is fun.''
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