Photo courtesy Alaska SeaLife Center                                Mara the Steller sea lion is seen at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward in this undated photo.

Photo courtesy Alaska SeaLife Center Mara the Steller sea lion is seen at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward in this undated photo.

SeaLife center sees donations, memberships climb

The center has raised over $1.3 million in donations since the start of their fundraising campaign.

With just over a month left before they hit their fundraising deadline, the Alaska SeaLife Center looks to be right on target, having raised well over a million dollars and recorded more new memberships than they’ve ever seen in the last two months.

“It’s been overwhelming, I think that’s the simplest way to put it,” Tara Riemer, chief executive officer of the SeaLife Center, said in an interview with the Clarion on Thursday.

At the last Seward City Council meeting, Riemer reported that they had raised over $1.3 million in donations since the start of their fundraising, which was enough to trigger a $500,000 grant that the Seward City Council had promised to the SeaLife Center back in July. The center also partnered with Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, Royal Caribbean Group and SSA Marine on Aug. 14, and the three cruise industry partners promised to match the next $100,000 in donations received by the SeaLife Center.

“They’re (cruise lines) not doing that well this summer, obviously, because they’re all shut down,” Riemer said. “But they still cared so much about us that they wanted to make that contribution. So we’re just, we’re a little floored by that and amazed that people are coming out of the woodwork to make donations, for their donations to be matched one-to-one.”

In order to encourage more local membership, the Seward Community Foundation launched a membership drive this month that promised a $25 donation for each of the next 100 SeaLife Center memberships purchased by residents of Seward and Moose Pass. Riemer said on Thursday that about 65 of those memberships had been claimed, and overall the SeaLife Center has more than doubled the amount of memberships they’ve ever had.

When the fundraising drive was initially announced, Riemer was encouraging people to sign up for memberships, but there was no specific goal in terms of numbers like the $2 million target they had for donations. Riemer said that with the success that they’ve already seen, they’re now aiming for 5,000 members by the end of September — a number that, for years, was considered a “pipe dream” by those running the nonprofit.

“That really is the level of membership we need to provide some additional sustainability for the center, and the people of Alaska have really been showing their love,” Riemer said. “Of the new memberships or people who have renewed during this period of time, 85% are Alaskan. So, it really is a strongly Alaskan piece of our support pool, and we’re trying to figure out what else we can do for our members, so that we can support them more and keep them thinking about the SeaLife Center even when they’re not here.”

New and returning supporters of the SeaLife Center haven’t hesitated to take advantage of the existing perks of membership, which include free admission. Riemer said that despite capacity still being limited due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, membership visitation is “through the roof.”

“I think we had, already, in August, more members visit than we did last year in the entire month,” Riemer said. “From the 1st through the 15th this year, we had 1,159 members. And last year, for the entire month, we had 930.”

As of Thursday, Riemer said that the SeaLife Center had right around 4,450 active memberships. Until July of this year, membership had never exceeded 2,000 in the over 22 years that the center has been in existence.

Riemer said that with a target date of Sept. 30, the center is “moving in the right direction” when it comes to hitting both their donation goal and their membership goal.

“I have to remind people that we’re not there yet, and with these matching challenges, you know, we’ve got to meet that and get that corporate donation,” Riemer said. “But it looks very promising that we will meet that goal, and hopefully a little bit early.”

The good news coming from the SeaLife Center isn’t all financial. The Steller sea lion pup born at the center in June, now named Mist, has been developing well. Riemer said that the last time she went to visit Mist and her mom, Mara, with one of the tour groups, Mist was just starting to get used to swimming in the water.

“Steller sea lions don’t swim right when they’re born,” Riemer said. “Harbor seals can. Harbor seals, they’re born, they swim within three to four weeks, mom kicks them out and they’re on their own. Steller sea lions stay with mom for about a year, and they’re much less coordinated. I call them floppy. They just kind of flop all over the place, like they don’t have a lot of muscle tone yet. But Mist now is fully comfortable with the water. And it was quite funny, when mom was getting fed, Mist got a little too close and mom started barking at her.”

Riemer said that Mara was reminding Mist, “This is my food, you stay away,” as Mist still has a few months of nursing before she’ll be eating like her mom.

To learn more about the SeaLife Center, visit alaskasealife.org.

Reach reporter Brian Mazurek at bmazurek@peninsulaclarion.com.

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