Even though a glass wall two inches thick separates us, being just feet away from a 1662-pound stellar sea lion hopped up on hormones is intimidating, although fascinating.

Pilot is 9-years-old and he eats 50 pounds of food a day. He gained 84 pounds just last week.

“So, this time of year this gain a lot of weight because the biggest and badest bulls are going to be successful in gaining territory,” mammalogist Juliana Kim explains as she tosses salmon and Pollock at the beast.

Pilot is the stud male in the breeding program at the SeaLife Center. Alaska’s stellar sea lions are endangered and in the wild, they’re having trouble keeping pups alive. Pilot’s training is part of a massive research effort that’s lasted more than a decade. The tricks are a crowd pleaser, but they also help scientists train Pilot how to take care of himself.

“Being able to brush their teeth, give them mouth rinses, take their weight; we want to see every single part of their body every single day to make sure they’re healthy,” said Kim.

Most of the animals at the SeaLife Center arrive in rough shape. Two-month-old sea otter Bishop was stranded near Homer on New Year’s Day. He had low glucose levels and was having seizures. Five months later, he’s doing great. However, the second scientists picked him up, his fate was sealed. He’ll never leave the walls of a wildlife facility again.

This weekend, the Alaska SeaLife Center is celebrating its twentieth anniversary. At the foot of Resurrection Bay, it’s the farthest-north marine science research facility in the country.

When it opened 20 years ago, the wounds from a recent disaster were still fresh. It was a few years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and it was obvious that wildlife wasn’t bouncing back. The Seward community and scientists wanted a place where they could research what was happening. Two decades later, there’s a new, and perhaps scarier disaster on the horizon: disappearing sea ice.

“There was no ice, so he found the next best thing-- which was a boat-- and he hauled up on the boat for several days," said Dr. Carrie Goertz, who helped care for baby walrus Aku last summer.

He came in in bad shape. Dehydrated and much too small for a few weeks old, even at 120 pounds, it took months of round the clock care to literally nurse him back to health. Staff spent hours cuddling the social creature, just like his mom would have in the wild.

Dr. Goertz learned as much as she could from Aku because she says he won’t be the last casualty of climate change.

“These animals that come up sick and debilitated give us a very unique perspective into what’s going on in their wild populations.”

Deep in the bowels of the SeaLife Center, there’s another research project happening – but this animal doesn’t cuddle. Dr. Richard Hocking points to something few people have ever seen: baby octopus-- some, just a few days old. In the SeaLife Center’s 20 year history, only three giant Pacific octopus have laid fertile eggs and only one baby has survived past five months. Nationwide, only one has made it beyond two years because scientists have no idea what wild baby octopus eat.

Their best guess is baby brine shrimp, which they raise by hand for just a few hours. So far, about 150 of the roughly 20,000 eggs have hatched and survived.

“You’re working with a baby animal, a small animal that lives in the ocean for months with no walls and here we have walls everywhere,” says Dr. Hocking.

All of the roughly 4,000 animals at the SeaLife Center are from Alaska, and scientists don’t know a lot about some of them. The puffin is the least studied species of bird. In the aviary, it’s breeding season. Puffins mate for life, which means they have squabbles and experience trauma just like human couples.

“Yep, she’s calling to Fabio, 'cause she’s like, 'what are these people doing,'” Avian Curator Kristen Pelo says as she opens the pair’s cage.

Fabio and Flow have been together for 32 years. Flow lost her sight a few years ago and she would get lost and panic. However, Fabio started calling and growling to show her the way. Now, the arthritic couple spends the chaotic breeding season in an enclosure tucked in the back of the aviary, courting each other in private.

“It is a really sweet story, yeah,” says Pelo.

On its twentieth anniversary, the Alaska SeaLife Center is celebrating its successes-- but not for too long because the research that happens here could determine if some of Alaska’s endangered species survive the challenges that lie ahead in the next 20 years and beyond.


WEB EXTRAS

This is Pilot, a 9-year-old stellar sea lion. Pilot is the “stud male” in the Alaska Sealife Center’s breeding program. Right now, staff is trying to bulk him up. He weighs 1,633 pounds and eats 50 pounds of fish a day. Pilot will gain another 800 pounds before he reaches his peak weight when he’ll be less interested in food and more interested in female sea lions. There have been four stellar sea cubs born at the Sealife Center, the first facility in North America to successfully breed and birth pups in captivity in 30 years.

Bishop is a rescue sea otter from the Homer area. He was found on New Year’s Day by some fishermen. After watching him from afar, scientists determined his mom wasn’t coming back and rescued him. Bishop was about 2 months-old then and having seizures. Staff at the Sealife Center say Bishop is doing great now and will eventually go to another facility to live out the rest of his days. His favorite snack is crab legs.


This is Fabio and Flow, an elderly pair of tufted puffins. They’ve been together for 32 years. A few years ago, Flow lost her sight, which is a big blow for a bird because sight is their number one sense. However, Fabio, named for his fabulous tuffs, started calling and growling at Flow when he would get lost and if she wouldn’t move he would waddle over to her and preen her until she followed him. Since it’s breeding season, staff put the pair in their own enclosure so they don’t have to deal with the chaos that can happen when birds mate. Puffins mate for life and this pair has a sweet story.

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