Over 400 people came out to the SEA Discovery Center in downtown Poulsbo as it reopened to the public during Viking Fest weekend after being shuttered the last few years due to COVID-19.
“It was a really great opportunity for us to unlock the doors,” said Bridget Andersen, director of operations and outreach. “We were just really overwhelmed. With Viking Fest, we thought that’s a built-in crowd so we don’t have to do any marketing.”
Andersen said now was the right time to reopen as new staff has settled in, maintenance issues with the building have been taken care of, and most of the 300 sea creatures have returned after having to be transported to other Puget Sound aquariums during the pandemic.
“Had we been able to we would have opened earlier,” she said. “We had to get the animals in their habitats.”
The aquarium, owned and operated by Western Washington University, lost most of its staff during COVID and had to hire new ones. Andersen came on board in February, and a few more were hired after that. There are four employees along with about 40 volunteers operating the facility. Before the pandemic, there were up to eight staff members.
“Hiring during the pandemic was challenging,” Andersen said. “Our goal is to become self-sustaining so we can bring on more staff and offer more programs to the community. We rely heavily on volunteers. Anybody interested in joining us to teach folks about the Salish Sea, we would love to have them. In order for us to be open the two days that we’re open, we really need volunteers in the space working with the public.”
The center is open Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Normally, it relies heavily on donations, but those were minimal during COVID. The aquarium did receive $50,000 in federal pandemic stimulus funds from the city to make up for the lack of donations.
“We don’t charge admission and, frankly, it’s very expensive to rent an aquarium,” Andersen said. “Once we couldn’t bring people in for the programming, we couldn’t sustain ourselves. We do also rent out the facility. That’s something that we’re doing as a way to bring in revenue. We have a beautiful deck.”
Beginning June 8, the center will display a special traveling exhibit called Orca: Shared Waters, Shared Home, based on the book of the same name written by Seattle Times journalist Lynda Mapes. Andersen said that will be available for viewing most of the summer.
They will also be doing “Tank Talks” this summer, which is more informal education, and Andersen said they have already begun booking birthday parties. Come fall, the aquarium will offer school programming.
Holding over 6,000 gallons of water in a variety of aquarium exhibits, SEA Discovery Center highlights life from the waters of Liberty Bay, local lakes and the greater Puget Sound, its website says.
The facility started in the 1960s as the Poulsbo Marine Science Center, located on the shores of Liberty Bay. It began its history as a marine education resource for the Kitsap community and school districts. In the 1990s, it moved to its present location downtown, where it continued to serve the community with programming for all ages, until its temporary closure in 2005.
A year later, longtime Poulsbo entrepreneur Bill Austin, local Bruce Harlow and others reopened the center with the city’s partnership along with community support and contributions. They reopened the center with new seawater systems and exhibits that are still there today. A floating boathouse laboratory for elementary students was also added.