In March of 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef just outside the port of Valdez in south-central Alaska. The resulting oil spill was the largest in U.S. history, spreading over 7800 square kilometers in Prince William Sound.
One of the few positive developments resulting from the spill was the construction of the Alaska Sea Life Center in the small town of Seward. The setting couldn't be more appropriate or beautiful. The Center sits at water's edge overlooking spectacular Resurrection Bay and backed by snow-capped mountains.
Fourteen years after the Exxon Valdez ran aground, scientists are still debating the disaster's impact. Complicating the discussion is a lack of data concerning what the ecosystem looked like before the oil spill.
"When the Exxon Valdez went aground and had that terrible natural disaster, one of the things that came out of that was a recognition that we didn't even know what the baseline information from that ecosystem was," said Tylan Schrock, the Director of the Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward. "That was one of the real strong messages that came out of the oil spill. We can construct a world class research institution that will provide that baseline data. And we never want to see that type of a natural disaster up here again, but we're not gonna kick ourselves for not having the information the second time around if it does happen to us."
So, five years ago, state and local governments matched a $26 million contribution from the Exxon Valdez disaster court settlement fund and built a facility dedicated to cold water marine research.
"There are three large scientific research programs that are being conducted at the Alaska Sea Life Center," said Shannon Atkinson, the Center's Science Director. "The largest one has to do with Stellar sea lions. The next one that we took on is on threatened stellar spectacled eiders [a type of duck] and the third one is on harbor seals. What these projects have in common is that they all deal with species that have seen large population declines in the last two to three decades."
In a back room of the Center, I find several research interns huddled around computer keyboards and television screens. The TVs show Stellar sea lions at four different locations where they congregate in and just outside Resurrection Bay. Using remotely-controlled cameras, the interns monitor sea lion behavior and record their observations every two hours around the clock. They recognize most of the sea lions on sight.
"I have an animal named Storm, an animal named Dante, Dagger, Loner, April, Maggie, Marty, Hogan, Jewel…," said one intern.
Researchers hope that over time the data they collect might reveal some clue as to why the Stellar sea lion population is declining. The Sea Life Center also accepts sick or injured animals for rehabilitation. Science Director Shannon Atkinson says that work also lends itself to answering the question of decline.
"Those animals are very valuable for us to be able to look and see, 'OK, what is going on with this animal? Why is this animal failing to thrive? How do these animals die,'" she said. "Because when you start working on declining species one of the things you realize is that every animal you're working with does die of something."
But just what that something is, is hard to determine if the animal dies at sea and researchers never get a look at the body. Animals taken in for rehabilitation provide a valuable research window on a species' biology and life cycle. Center Director Tylan Schrock introduces the Sea Life Center's most famous rehab resident.
"Today the most impressive thing is probably our male Stellar sea lion who has just topped 1800 pounds [800 kilos]. He's absolutely enormous! It's just stunning how large this animal is and he's not done growing yet," he said. "He's doing about a hundred pounds a week right now and he's just a fascinating creature and still as graceful as he ever was and just amazing to get to watch him grow up."
And watching him grow up is something thousands of Alaska residents and thousands more summer time tourists will also get to enjoy. After research and rehabilitation, the Sea Life Center's third mission is education. Most of the facility's research labs and salt-water tanks are laid out in such a way that visitors can watch what goes on inside. One of the most popular exhibits allows visitors to get up close and personal with the Center's collection of aquatic birds.
Science Director Shannon Atkinson says Center staff tries to help visitors understand that everyone benefits from healthy Alaskan waters.
"We've got a lot of work to understand why the Gulf of Alaska works the way it is, why the Bering Sea is the most productive sea in the world," she said. "We've got a gold mine of resources up here and what we need to do is understand how man is influencing those and what we can do to sustain these resources as well as to utilize them."