By Guananí Gómez-Van Cortright
After nearly two years of being closed due to the pandemic, the Seymour Marine Discovery Center is fully reopening its exhibits to members and the general public this month.
“It’s been 19 months since this place closed down, and this is the first time we’re welcoming folks back into the building,” said Seymour Center Executive Director Jonathan Hicken. “I’m excited to see this place full of people discovering and seeing the ocean the way scientists see it.”
All the iconic Seymour attractions are back on display, including the gray and blue whale skeletons outside and the indoor touch tanks and aquarium exhibits. “The seawater table is back open, the sharks are back, you can touch a shark,” said Dale Bieser, volunteer and member of the Seymour Center board.
The Seymour Center is also showing a new exhibit, “Photos from the Field,” which gives visitors a glimpse of cutting-edge marine research being done in Santa Cruz County.
“Look forward to feeling some hometown pride,” said Hicken. “[This research] is contributing to global conversations about the ocean and climate change, right here. Santa Cruz is making a global impact.”
While volunteers and staff are thrilled to welcome back visitors, the journey to reopening was no easy feat. Bieser says the Seymour Center lost 75% of its staff when it closed because of the pandemic.
“All the students had to go, all the part-time staff, and a lot of the full-time staff. I would walk down that empty hall and it’d be so sad,” Bieser said.
A skeleton crew of volunteers and staff kept busy, determined to find ways to keep sharing the wonder and importance of marine science with the community. They got creative, experimenting with virtual exhibits and hosting an outdoor ‘seaside shopping’ event to sell off gift shop inventory during the holidays.
“I pretty much didn’t shut down during the shutdown,” said Bieser. “Truly, I don’t know how I would have gotten through the pandemic without the Seymour Center—it’s like family. But I missed the camaraderie, talking to people, those ah-ha moments, the little kids.”
In the midst of caring for the aquarium animals with minimal staff and experimenting with virtual outreach, the CZU Lightning Complex fires struck. All of the Seymour Center and Long Marine Laboratory animals had to be evacuated.
“People came from Monterey, from all over to help take our animals,” said Bieser. “There were photos of all the orange, the smoke. But all these people came out to help us.” Many of those helping with the evacuation were former volunteers and summer camp students. “It’s amazing how a lot of young people get inspired here,” said Bieser.
As the threat of fires eased and vaccinations rolled out, volunteers organized weekly outdoor events on the Seymour Center grounds. Starting on Earth Day in April, they hauled out tables with props and plastic tubs that served as mini touch tanks. The brief outdoor events attracted as many as 100-200 visitors per weekend.
“It was only for three hours on Saturdays, but we couldn’t believe how many people came,” said Bieser. “And they kept coming back.”
The Seymour Center summer camp, Ocean Explorers, was also able to run outdoors in 2021.
Now, the Seymour Center is ready to fully reintroduce itself to the community. “It was a labor of love,” said Hicken. “Reopening is a major milestone and testament to everyone’s hard work.”
UCSC student workers have returned to staffing the front desk, and staff is currently working on resuming school programs and field trips come this winter. Visitors peruse among the exhibits, peering through the glass at seven-legged sea stars and dipping into the touch tanks to stroke the bumpy backs of swell sharks.
“It feels like the real world again,” said Susie Hotelling, an exhibit guide volunteer staffing the gray whale table. “To see young people get excited about the ocean and the animals, it’s awesome. We live in an amazing place.”
The Seymour Center is opening its doors to members the weekend of Oct. 8, and will reopen to all visitors Oct. 15, Friday-Sunday. 10am-4pm.