Picture Seward in 1997, the year a proposed world-class sea mammal research center and aquarium opens. Inside the darkened lobby of a large, low complex at the south end of downtown, king crabs knock around in a tank 50 feet long and 30 feet high. Pollock and other Gulf of Alaska fish swim in a tank behind the crabs. Stellar sea lions frolic behind the fish. Though the creatures are captive in their own, separate, acrylic-walled worlds, the effect is that of peering into a teeming ocean.
An escalator alongside the crab tank whisks visitors up to ground level and the next exhibit outside.
With the Kenai Mountains and Resurrection Bay as a backdrop, sea lions lounge on a man-made rookery while puffins nest and sea otters frolic. Visitors study sea otters at play and nesting puffins.
Another escalator sends visitors down to the crown jewel of the aquarium. Under layers of acrylic, they watch from underneath the world just seen above. It's as if viewers are walking on the ocean floor.
And though guests can't see them, scientists and veterinarians from around the world
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work in the laboratories, examination rooms and holding tanks that surround the exhibits. If an ecological disaster should strike or an animal is stranded, tanks and rooms stand ready to receive small whales, sea lions or other injured birds or animals.
It's a $46.3 million dream, and backers of the center believe 300,000 people a year will pay $11 apiece to share in it.
"It's like you're actually in the ocean," says an enthusiastic Tom Smith, assistant director for coastal and marine operations for the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a longtime backer of the aquarium.
OIL MONEY AT THE HEART
The people pushing the Alaska Sea Life Center believe in their project with the fervor of new religious converts. Their biggest points of pride: The center will be the only non-profit facility of its kind designed with public education, research and rehabilitation sharing equal partnership; and no other aquarium in the world is designed to hold live ice-dwelling animals for research into how they eat, reproduce and tolerate pollution and parasites.
"In the state of Alaska, we couldn't hold one marine mammal if we wanted to," said Mike Castellini, a scientific adviser to the project and a marine mammal specialist at UAF. "I've got scientists from around the world saying, 'You put the tanks in the ground and we'll be there.' "
Though the project only exists in feasibility studies and glossy architects' drawings, last winter's legislative promise of $12.5 million from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill moved the dream much closer to reality. So did more than $2 million of waterfront land donated by the city of Seward and another $400,000 in private donations and grants.
But the biggest hurdles for the center are yet to come. Next month, the six trustees who control $900 million in civil settlement money from the oil spill are expected to decide whether to consider giving the center $25 million the bulk of funding for the project. After that, weeks of public comment and studies of the center's feasibility will be conducted. A final decision might not come until January if then, said Darryl Schaefermeyer, a former Seward city manager and a member of the Seward Association for the Advancement of Marine Science, the board overseeing the center.
Without that cash, the dream fades. And SAAMS members admit they will have to hire a professional fund-raising organization to save the dream.
Until the time the trustees decide, Sea Life center dreamers will have to answer a number of questions: Does a marine center qualify as a restoration project the legal stipulation attached to the spill money? Can the center sustain itself after the initial attraction wears off? Will the center become Alaska's version of Sea World?
Perhaps more philosophically, critics many of whom have taken to calling the project the "whale jail" are asking whether captive wildlife and animal research is the wave of the future for a state abundant with raw beauty and wilderness.
"You have to question if this is the future of Alaska: to have habitat lost but plenty of penned animals people pay to see," argues Stephen Wells, executive director of Alaska Wildlife Alliance, a group whose latest battle was against aerial wolf hunting. "I don't think this is the direction we as a state want to go."
NEED FUELS THE DREAM
The dream started in 1968, when advisers for the existing UAF marine research facility in Seward wanted to increase laboratory capacity. They kicked around the notion of a small aquarium with a strong public education bent, gaining supporters until the 1980s' oil-price crash quashed the notion.
During that same decade, the Stellar sea lion population mysteriously started to decline. Numbers of other species, including fur seals and birds, also began to decrease. Then 11 million gallons of oil spewed into Prince William Sound. Veterinarians and scientists who traveled to Seward to help rehabilitate oiled otters and birds told their Alaska cohorts what the locals already knew: Alaska badly needed a marine mammal research and rehabilitation center.
The rehabilitative arm of the center is exactly what SAAMS members hope will convince the trustees and the courts to allocate money from the oil spill settlement. Legally, the money must go to projects aimed at restoring areas hurt by the spill. But what constitutes restoration has yet to be exactly defined.
The loudest complaint about spending oil spill money on the center comes from people who prefer the settlement be used to help fisheries damaged by the spill or to buy and protect habitat. Center backers argue that having some place to study the effects of oil spills and to rehabilitate animals injured in man-made environmental disasters is as important.
"The point I've always made is that I support buying land, but you can't buy the ocean," UAF's Castellini said. His research into Stellar sea lions, for example, is limited to about six weeks a year when he and a team of researchers travel to rookeries for shore-based research. Doing meaningful research with so little time to study live animals is difficult, he said.
Anchorage veterinarian Joyce Murphy sees almost 100 abandoned or injured marine mammals a year at her clinic in South Anchorage. Although she's one of Alaska's leading marine mammal veterinarians, her clinic isn't designed to handle the animals dumped on her doorstep. And even if she nurses the animals back to health, many can't survive when released back to the wild.
"The majority of the kids we get in here die when they go back. Or we have to ship them Outside, and they usually die," she said. "It's an incredible loss of resource. What we need to do is find a way to hold them until they can survive in the wild and keep the ones that can't safe and healthy."
With a marine mammal center, animals that can't be returned will turn into exhibits or research projects. And though the SAAMS members believe enough animals are stranded or injured annually to keep a strong population of common species at the center, they admit the first wave of animals will have to be imported from Outside or taken from the wild specifically to fill the aquarium.
"If we wanted a specific permit for ring seals we would apply for a federal permit and go to the ice and get those animals," Castellini said.
CENTER NEEDS VISITORS
Filling the center with animals isn't the larger concern, however. Backers worry more about filling the center with people. Without a consistent flow of admission money, the center won't be self-sustaining. Initial feasibility studies will be presented Friday to the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a board charged by the Legislature with approving the financial viability of the project. Though the complete studies have yet to be made public, their authors say the authority should be pleased despite the fact that the numbers of visitors expected are lower than what backers first projected.
Dale Fox, president of an Alaska-based tourism marketing firm and the author of one of the feasibility studies, determined 265,000 people will travel to the center the first year, with 300,000 passing through the doors by the fifth year. Members of the SAAMS board originally estimated the center would attract 450,000 visitors.
Fox tallied the number of expected tourists, cruise ship passengers and Alaska residents who would visit Seward during a given year. He mixed in the 65,000 schoolchildren in southcentral Alaska and the number of convention- goers.
On top of the estimates, Fox conducted a survey of 868 Alaskans and asked if they would pay $10 to visit the Sea Life center. A whooping 69 percent said yes.
"As you know, 69 percent of Alaskans aren't in favor of anything," he said.
After the initial interest by locals wears off, Fox expects the mix of visitors to be about one-third Alaskans and two-thirds tourists. That would still provide about 300,000 visitors a year the break-even point to pay for the estimated $3.92 million annual operating cost. Donations, grants and lab fees paid by scientists are expected to flesh out the budget.
In addition, the project is expected to create 43 jobs, including the 12- person medical team. And by building the center in the south tip of Seward, development now heading decidedly north can be rerouted, said Schaefermeyer, the former city manager.
Still, good projections, economic growth and the appeal of saving injured marine mammals might not be enough to turn the dream into reality. The industrial development authority must deem the project feasible in order to receive oil spill money from the Legislature. The slow-moving Exxon oil trustees must agree to fund the bulk of the center. And even if the trustees come through, an additional $8 million or $9 million must be raised from private companies, foundations or by floating a bond with city of Seward taxpayers.
And though no environmental group is formally tracking the project, leaders of two local groups say they oppose keeping animals in captivity and promise to keep a close eye on the project.
"Greenpeace has, in the past, fought captivity of marine mammals simply because marine mammals don't do well in captivity," said Pam Miller, a local leader of that organization.
But the dreamers aren't deterred. The vision has been forming for more than 20 years. And never has the reality loomed so large.
"We are so close," said Smith. "If we get the money, we're there."
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