Next morning, Friday, August 21, we slept in. We would be returning to Anchorage that evening via the Alaska Railroad, and originally we had planned this to be our day to hike to Exit Glacier and possibly the Harding Icefield. But we’d switched those plans based on the weather reports. It worked out perfectly. Wednesday afternoon had been sunny and glorious for our hike. Friday, although warm, was rainy, a perfect day to be indoors at the Alaska SeaLife Center.
After showering, we repacked our bags and left our backpacks at the front desk of Hotel Seward. We were even able to tag them for the hotel to drop off at the rail depot for us. Waiting at the front desk, we encountered our second set of old, grumpy, self-entitled, white cruisers who were just having a problem with everything and driving the beleaguered front desk clerk insane.
Then we grabbed our daypacks and headed over to the Sea Bean for brunch. We scored a table, and settled in for breakfast sandwiches, yogurt, and coffee. On one side of us, an early-fifty-something couple was talking about their cruise ship act, by which I mean the act they perform on a cruise ship. Scattered throughout the Sea Bean were dewy young things that were obviously actors, entertainers, and staff from whichever cruise ship was docked in town that morning. Everyone was taking advantage of the coffee shop’s free wi-fi. On the other side of us, a man of Asian or Pacific Island ethnicity was tip-tapping away on his laptop. Eventually, he was joined by his white husband and their two kids. The gay dads were handsome, fit, and apparently wealthy. We decided that they were alternate universe us.
After the Sea Bean, we sauntered off through the persistent drizzle toward the SeaLife Center.
The Alaska SeaLife Center, which opened in 1998, was a direct result of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound in 1989. $37.5 million of the center’s initial $55 million price tag came from the settlement funds from Exxon.
The SeaLife Center is a 501c(3) non-profit organization, and its mission is to generate and share scientific knowledge to promote understanding and stewardship of Alaska’s marine ecosystems.
In addition to being Alaska’s only public aquarium, the SeaLife Center is a research, and most importantly, a rescue and rehabilitation institution focused exclusively on northern marine ecosystems.Distressed, injured, or abandoned animals are rehabilitated here and either released or, if unable to survive in the wild, transported to zoos and aquariums across the country.
Compared to a place like Shedd Aquarium, it is small and unassuming. On that Friday afternoon, it wasn’t particularly busy.
But by far the most impressive, moving even, aspect of the SeaLife Center is that its rehabilitation mission and its direct connection to the habitats that are adjacent to its location on the shores of Resurrection Bay are palpable. This is no grand old behemoth of an institution housed in a neo-classical temple. This place rises organically from its surroundings, created as a response to disaster and intimately connecting people to nature. It is a hugely impressive place.
Perhaps the most fun part of visiting the SeaLife Center after our tour of Kenai Fjords National Park was that we got to see up close many of the species we’d seen in the wild the day before.
Video: Brandon Hayes and Sean M. Santos
The employee who was walking by while people had questions about the Brittle Stars (above) happened to be the janitor, but he enthusiastically talked about the creatures. If deep enthusiasm and knowledge of the animals runs even to the janitorial staff here, it really is a special place.
There was an exhibition about Helicoprion, an extinct, sharklike fish from the Permian, which survived until the early Triassic. Its most distinctive feature is its tooth whorl. Paleontologists are uncertain how exactly it fit into the jaw.
The SeaLife Center was also the first of many places in Alaska where we would encounter palpable concern over the Arctic in the face of climate change. Alaskans are on the front line of this disaster, and questions about what is to come are omnipresent in public spaces.
All told, we were so impressed with the Alaska SeaLife Center after walking through it once that we immediately decided to walk through it a second time instead of going back to the Sea Bean for a snack.
After our second go around and a visit to the gift shop, we headed back outside and walked through town to the post office to mail some postcards. The afternoon was growing late and it would soon be time to catch our train.