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Roadtrippin’: Seeing, touching and learning about Alaska’s marine wildlife

The Frey family continues their day trip adventure to Seward
Updated: Jun. 6, 2021 at 6:29 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - It is a soggy but busy early summer afternoon in downtown Seward. Tourists have returned after hunkering down for more than a year, out enjoying the shops and restaurants, while the wildlife can be seen floating by in Resurrection Bay.

After an adventure-filled morning on the Alaska Railroad, we’re looking forward to not only seeing some of the marine wildlife that calls Alaska home, but learning more about them at the Alaska SeaLife Center.

From the aviary to the underwater tanks, the new Rocky Coast Discovery Pools to the outdoor pools, you can see more than a dozen sea mammals, nearly 150 birds and thousands of fish and invertebrates inside the center.

But it’s not all just for entertainment. Upstairs in the outdoor pool, Pilot the Steller sea lion can be seen splashing and barking, diving and even sticking out his tongue as he trains with Shelby Burman, a mammologist at the center. “As entertaining as I know he is, that is not the priority for him, it’s so I can take the best care of him that I need to,” said Burman. “With that relationship we formed and that big bucket of fish I carry, I equal pretty much positive most of the time.”

Pilot is part of a breeding program and is perfectly healthy, but some of the animals are quite sick when they arrive. Wildlife response is one of the key missions of the center. Doctor Goertz oversees all the veterinary care.

“Just a couple of days ago we brought in a male harbor seal pup, newborn, the placenta was still attached,” said Dr. Carrie Goertz, director of animal health at the Alaska SeaLife Center. “Clearly mom had abandoned him. It was a high traffic area, and also there were reports of bear in the area, but he was also in a very bad way. He was barely responsive.”

The seal pup is one of several animals they have rescued this year, including three sea otters and a ringed seal. The SeaLife Center also works to educate and encourage empathy for our Alaskan sea life through exhibits at the center, and through educational programs with area schools.

One of the truly Alaskan species we got to meet was the horned puffin. Aidan Lee introduced us to puffins Nemo and Dori and to the rhinoceros auklet, Klinger.

In the aviary, Lee showed us how puffins nest, care for the single egg hatched each year, and why their look is so unique.

There is so much to see and learn here, and even to touch! The new Rocky Coast Discovery Pools just opened at the end of May, which are a series of open aquarium tanks containing more than 3,000 fish and invertebrates. We got to feel what several different types of starfish, sea anemones, and even prawns and crabs felt like.

The Alaska SeaLife Center is busy and full of life on this Saturday afternoon, but they have had a tough year, and it wasn’t clear if they would make it through. “We are so grateful for the outpouring of support we received last fall. It was a very scary time for us financially because of all that was going on,” said Goertz.

They kept swimming. Alaskans near and far stepped in to help, and the storm is passing.

“Now to see it as busy as it’s supposed to be... it’s just... really emotional,” said Nancy Anderson, Development Director of the Alaska Sealife Center. The visitors are back, new exhibits are open and we are all thankful.

If you would like to visit the Alaska SeaLife Center this summer, you’re highly encouraged to buy your tickets online first. The center is operating at a controlled capacity, and having your tickets ahead of time will ensure you can get right in. And if you’re out and about and come across a stranded or injured marine animal, keep your distance and call the wildlife response team at 1-888-774-SEAL (7325).

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