The crowds were so thick at the opening day of the Alaska SeaLife Center that at times it was nearly impossible to see Woody, the center's resident 500-pound Steller sea lion.
To get a better view, people jockeyed for position in the dark room to look through thick glass windows into large pools where Woody, harbor seals and seabirds swam.
Children pressed their faces to the windows and stared up through the green water at the underside of murres and puffins bobbing overhead, pedaling their webbed feet.
Occasionally a handler would toss tiny fish into the water and the birds dove down. It looked as if they were flying under water.
''You can't see this just anywhere, this is unique,'' said Jane Parkhust, who had taken the train from Anchorage with her husband, Rick, to watch the center's opening ceremonies.
An estimated 1,500 people crowded the front door about 12:30 p.m. for the ribbon-cutting ceremony, which began just as the sun came out. According to SeaLife Center staff, a couple of thousand more probably trickled in the rest of the afternoon.
The SeaLife Center prides itself as the Western Hemisphere's first cold-water marine research facility. Researchers hope experiments on its resident animals will one day help them unravel mysteries such as why North Pacific Steller sea lions are dying off.
Speakers Saturday, such as U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski and Gov. Tony Knowles, talked about how little anyone knows about the biology beneath the waves of Alaska's lengthy coastline.
Former Gov. Wally Hickel said the birth of the new center on the shore of Resurrection Bay made him feel spiritual.
''We're doing something significant today, for the ages,'' Hickel said. ''I feel like we're launching a ship. This building will stay in one place, but the learning from it will go very far.''
Hickel, who was governor when the tanker Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of oil in 1989, is credited for making a marine center in Seward a top priority for criminal and civil settlement funds.
Seward had sought a strong research institute and public aquarium since the late 1960s, but it was money from those funds that made it possible. Settlement money covered $38.7 million of the center's construction costs, with $17 million more coming from the sale of municipal bonds and private fund-raising.
Hickel may have launched the SeaLife Center, but the state doesn't intend to keep it afloat. The nonprofit organization may be the world's first large research aquarium to rely almost totally on public visitation to pay its bills.
The center is banking on 275,000 visitors its first year to meet a $6.25 million budget. Adult tickets are $12.50, and kids get in for $10. But on Saturday, the center asked for a $15 donation, which most people paid.
If the crush of people in the center's gift shop Saturday was any indication, the blend of hard science and hard cash could pan out.
A pile of 2,100 commemorative T-shirts, at $15 apiece, were going fast and expected to sell out by the end of the day, said Samantha Ovenden, retail manager.
Alaska artist Barbara Lavalee sat in one corner of the gift shop, busily autographing $75 prints of her painting ''Windows To The Sea,'' commissioned by the SeaLife Center.
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