Presented by ConocoPhillips Alaska

Since opening its doors in 1998, the Alaska SeaLife Center has become a favorite destination for visitors to Seward, much-loved by Alaskans and tourists alike.

How well loved? When the Center went public with a fundraising plea earlier this year, supporters came through with pledges that so far total more than double the institution’s emergency funding target.

“Our original goal was ‘$2 million or we close,’” said Alaska SeaLife Center President and CEO Tara Riemer. “Now we’re looking at $4 million definitely pledged. That is amazing.”

To the Center, that extra $2 million represents the difference between merely keeping the doors open and continuing to pursue the work in education, research and wildlife rescue -- much of it happening out of public view -- that is central to the organization’s mission.

Not just an aquarium

About 160,000 people visit the Alaska SeaLife Center every year to get up close and personal with seals and sea lions, marine birds, fish, and other Alaska ocean life. But the Center is much more than an aquarium.

Even if you’ve explored every square inch of the public viewing areas, you’ve only seen about half of what the organization does. Behind the scenes, Center teams are constantly at work on programs that advance the institution’s mission of education, wildlife response, and scientific research.

“After my first visit at the SeaLife Center, I was kind of hooked,” said ConocoPhillips Alaska’s Director of Environmental and Permitting Terry Lauck, who has served on the organization’s board of directors for six years and this month became its chair. “It’s the only place within the country where it combines research, education and the animal rescue and rehabilitation programs, where it all comes together with the Alaska marine ecosystems. There’s no place like it.”

In laboratories and out in the field, Alaska SeaLife Center researchers are studying solutions to declining Eider sea duck populations, learning about ringed seals' metabolism and biology, and monitoring a Steller sea lion rookery that visitors can observe via a live video feed.

“We’ve been watching that rookery long enough to see multiple generations and really know an awful lot about those animals,” Riemer said. “It’s very important work, but also really cool that you can actually watch it without being out there.”

One current project that supporters are watching with interest is a study of Alaska’s sleeper sharks, a population about which little is known.

“We’ve had a group of scientists out in Resurrection Bay this summer catching sharks,” Riemer said. “They’ve caught dozens of sharks and they’ve never caught the same shark twice.”

That kind of work is exciting to follow, Lauck said, and just goes to show that even today there is much more to be discovered about Alaska’s ocean creatures.

“You don’t think of Alaska as being a place where you have a lot of sharks,” Lauck said. “We’re learning a lot. I think it’s fascinating.”

The in-person visitor experience in Seward is the best known part of the Center’s education program, but thousands more people experience the institution every year without ever walking through its doors.

While many schools, museums and educational programs are just starting to figure out “distance learning,” the Center has offered online education programs to classes and groups since 2005, reaching more than 107,000 learners around Alaska and the world -- efforts that this month earned it the Pinnacle Hall of Fame recognition from the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration. A new pilot program launched at the beginning of October made a handful of online events available to the general public, and Riemer said there are plans in the works to expand those offerings so more individuals can experience the Center’s educational programs from home.

“The distance learning program is amazing,” Lauck said. “They do a fantastic job reaching out to people.”

Rescue and response

Every year, the Alaska SeaLife Center responds to orphaned and injured marine mammals -- work that Riemer wasn’t sure would be able to continue this year until the pledges started pouring in. The rehabilitation program annually sees anywhere from eight to a dozen or more animals that need help.

“A normal year for us is six to eight harbor seals, one to four sea otters, and something else -- and you never know what that’s going to be,” Riemer said. One year it was a baby beluga whale. Another time it was a northern fur seal. Occasionally it’s a walrus or a far-from-home Arctic ringed seal.

Caring for resident animals is very different from responding to wildlife in crisis; Riemer compares the rehabilitation program to an emergency room setting. And this particular “emergency room” just happens to be a teaching hospital.

“We have the opportunity to study them over a period of time as they rehabilitate,” Riemer said.

The Center has also trained hundreds of animal care professionals around the country, developing a network of people who have the training to respond rapidly when animals are affected by disaster. The organization works with agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on preparedness and mitigation plans. This work means that if there’s a population of Alaska animals that need rapid response, there is a plan in place to help them and a team of trained experts ready to jump into action.

Lauck said he appreciates the parallels between the science he sees in his work on the job and the science he experiences through his work with the Center.

“The ocean’s just so important, not only to Alaska’s economy but the health of the world,” Lauck said. “There’s always more that we can learn about it, and that’s part of the SeaLife Center’s mission.”

Why the mission matters

Research into marine animals is important for a couple of reasons, according to Riemer. For one, it’s interesting, and it can help protect animal populations.

“How do you save animals from extinction? You learn a lot about them,” Riemer said. “The more we know about them, the more we know what kinds of habitats they are going to need.”

Beyond the animals' own welfare, she continued, research makes it possible for humans to work and play on the oceans in a way that’s safe for everyone in the ecosystem.

“With most environmental regulations, the less you know about the animals, the more strict the regulations are,” Riemer said. “From a development and people perspective, the more you know about the animals, the more you can protect the animals and let human activities continue. You can better place that line as opposed to just saying ‘off limits.’”

Those human activities can include anything from recreational boating and paddling to commercial fishing to oil and gas production.

“We all are on this planet together,” Riemer said. “How do you cohabitate the ocean? You know enough about the animals in the ocean so that the activities of the people aren’t negatively impacting the animals.”

Additionally, both Riemer and Lauck said, education -- whether in the aquarium, in the classroom or online -- plays an important role in getting young people interested in science.

“Ocean animals especially get kids excited,” Riemer said. “If you can link these animals to science and get kids thinking that science is cool, you’re helping raise the next generation of biologists.”

The difference between surviving and thriving

The Center’s mission is somewhat cyclical. The educational component of the aquarium funds the research and rehabilitation work, which contributes to a better educational experience, which generates revenue for further research. So when COVID-19 decimated Alaska’s visitor economy in 2020, all of this mission work was threatened.

“This fundraising challenge has really opened our eyes to how fragile things are, how much we rely on tourism,” Lauck said. “Not having the cruise ships come in, it’s been devastating.”

Supporters came out in droves to fill in the financial gap left by lost revenue, both from the dramatic drop in tourism and the months that the building was forced to close to the public entirely. The initial $2 million goal meant the Center could stay open, but it didn’t mean the organization would have been able to continue on at full capacity.

But donations continued rolling in even once the goal had been met. And the continued fundraising initiative received an injection of fresh energy when longtime benefactor ConocoPhillips Alaska offered to match donations pledged in the month of September, up to $250,000.

“The ConocoPhillips match was an amazing piece of that, which really helped maintain the momentum,” Riemer said. “It really helped keep people engaged until the end.”

With the addition of the ConocoPhillips Alaska match pledge, the Center is now sitting at more than double its initial emergency fundraising goal. It’s the difference between simply surviving and being able to fully pursue its mission.

“What this $4 million means is we have the funding to keep our education staff over the winter,” Riemer said. “It means that if there is a sea otter that needs our help this winter that we’ll be able to respond to that otter, which wasn’t necessarily the case. It’s really getting us back to a place where we’ll be able to really do the research programs.”

Lupin (otter) USFWS MA73418B-1

Still, the Center is keeping a watchful eye on 2021 and working to insulate its finances against future challenges.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Lauck said. “We don’t know how long this is going to last. There’s some big unknowns on the horizon. We’re trying to get to a position where we’re more resilient.”

The silver lining has been seeing just how much the Alaska SeaLife Center means to Alaskans. While visitors from Outside have been down, visits from Alaskans have far exceeded normal numbers over the past several months. Lauck said he has felt a deep love and concern for the Center from his colleagues at work.

“Just seeing how proud all my coworkers (and) fellow employees are, with ConocoPhillips' support of the SeaLife Center -- it’s really amazing,” Lauck said. “We’ve got a lot of fans within the company.”

In the spring, the Center will open a brand new touch tank, sponsored by ConocoPhillips Alaska. It’s a project that was temporarily put on hold until the Center knew whether it would be able to stay open, so Riemer is particularly excited to see it back on track.

“There’ll be a reason for all these people to come back next summer,” she said. “That will be really super cool.”

Lauck, who has been busy writing thank-you notes to donors who have stepped up to keep the Center open, said the response just goes to show how much Alaskans care about the institution and the work it does in the state.

“It’s much more than a public aquarium,” Lauck said. “Everything about it is cool.”

Presented by ConocoPhillips Alaska, a proud supporter of the Alaska SeaLife Center and many other organizations that improve the quality of life in the communities where we live and work.

This story was produced by the sponsored content department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with ConocoPhillips Alaska. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.