The Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward said Wednesday it has raised enough money to keep operating through the winter after taking a revenue hit during the coronavirus pandemic.
Center officials said its future remained unclear earlier in summer when its regular revenue, heavily generated by tourist visits, was decimated by the pandemic. The center is the state’s only marine mammal rescue program and serves as a research hub for animals of the North Pacific.
Officials said in July that $2 million was needed by Sept. 30. The goal was met more than a month before the deadline, said Tara Riemer, the SeaLife Center’s president and CEO.
Despite the success in fundraising, the center’s financial woes are far from over as it looks toward next summer. Riemer said the center also needs money to ensure consistency for research and educational programs that have been cut or reduced.
To make things more stable, Riemer said, she’d like the center to raise $1 million more by the end of September. She said she’s been overwhelmed by the community response since the center asked for assistance and many companies have stepped up to match donations, including some in the travel industry that are also struggling.
Household memberships have also reached an all-time high, more than doubling in the last six weeks, she said.
“The maximum number of memberships we’ve ever had was 1,800 and that was right before the pandemic started, because we’d been on an increase,” she said. “We now have over 4,500 member households.”
Roughly 85% of the memberships are purchased by Alaskans, Reimer said.
The number of visitors has also increased since July, she said. The center implemented pandemic safety precautions, including a one-way visitor flow and social distancing. Visitor numbers are limited.
“Our Saturdays and Sundays have been really busy,” she said. “This last weekend’s Saturday and Sunday had more visitors than we had had the comparable weekend last summer. So that’s amazing. It’s a lot of Alaskans coming down.”
Reimer said she thinks the financial challenges of this summer have reminded Alaskans how vital the SeaLife Center is. It’s the second-largest private employer in Seward, the only place in the state for marine mammal rescues and provides a unique opportunity for people to learn about and engage with wildlife.
“We don’t have someone who’s basically supporting us or has our back — it’s the people of Alaska that have our back,” she said.
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