New elephant seal sculpture at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center honors Long Marine Lab volunteers

A dramatic new sculpture of northern elephant seals enlivens the entrance to the Seymour Marine Discovery Center in Santa Cruz and has already become a favorite "photo opportunity" for visitors to the center, located at UC Santa Cruz's Long Marine Laboratory. The exhibit honors the many volunteers who have helped over the years to interpret Long Marine Lab's scientific research for the public and highlights the long history of elephant seal research at the lab.

The life-size sculpture includes a female with her pup and a rearing bull elephant seal. It was unveiled at the Seymour Center's Volunteer Celebration in June and dedicated to "the Long Marine Laboratory Volunteers--Past, Present, and Future."

The idea of putting some kind of sculpture near the entrance was part of the original plans for the Seymour Center's exhibits, said director Julie Barrett Heffington.

"As our plans developed, it became clear that this was an obvious place to make a tribute to the volunteers who do so much to help us share the wonders of marine science with the public," Heffington said.

Since the founding of Long Marine Laboratory in 1978 as a research facility of the University of California, Santa Cruz, volunteers have been at the heart of the lab's public education programs. Those programs are now based at the Seymour Center, which opened in 2000.

Among the discoveries by UCSC scientists that the volunteers have helped share with the world are the amazing feats of the northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris). The seals, which reproduce on the beaches of Año Nuevo State Reserve 20 miles north of Santa Cruz, have been a focus of research at UCSC for more than three decades. Long Marine Lab scientists discovered many of the remarkable diving, feeding, and reproductive behaviors of this impressive animal. With satellite tracking technology and other new tools, scientists at the lab are now unveiling the mysteries of elephant seal behavior during the long periods the animals spend at sea.

The elephant seal sculptures were made from molds originally created in the late 1980s by the California Academy of Sciences. The academy agreed to let Long Marine Lab borrow the molds, and the new sculptures were fabricated by David Caldwell at Edge Innovations in Alameda. Edge Innovations is known for producing lifelike animatronic creatures and other special effects for feature films, including the movies Free Willy, Anaconda, and The Perfect Storm.

Steve Davenport, manager of Long Marine Lab and assistant director of UCSC's Institute of Marine Sciences, credited both Caldwell and the original artists who created the molds for producing a superb display that captures the striking appearance of elephant seals.

"David Caldwell did a wonderful job, and it's all based on the incredible artwork of the originals," Davenport said.

One of the original artists, Gloria Nusse, worked with Caldwell on the final details. Nusse was one of a team of artists who sculpted the originals out of clay (about 1,000 pounds of it) and made latex molds from the clay sculptures. The other artists involved were Steve Carr, Lindsay Dixon, Jane Eckenrode, and Frank Tose. They were advised by elephant seal experts at the academy and even spent four days on Año Nuevo Island as guests of UCSC biologists, drawing and observing the seals, Nusse said.

"Working on the seals was a wonderful blending of art and science that does not happen all the time," she said.

Caldwell used the academy's molds to make the Seymour Center's sculptures out of fiberglass and polyester resin. The sculptures are filled with rigid foam and anchored to cement bulkheads in the ground.

The original sculptures include two bull elephant seals in a fighting pose, along with a mother and pup, but the mold for one of the bulls was damaged and could not be used. The originals have been on display for years at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. With those facilities undergoing a major rebuilding project, the academy is making arrangements to find a temporary home for its elephant seal sculptures, which are not among the exhibits in the academy's temporary museum at 875 Howard Street in San Francisco.

The Seymour Center is a science education center located at Long Marine Laboratory at the end of Delaware Ave. on the west side of Santa Cruz. Overlooking the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the center features aquariums, exhibits, touch tanks, an 87-foot blue whale skeleton, a gift and book shop, and more. The center's exhibits focus on the work of researchers at UCSC's Institute of Marine Sciences, which operates Long Marine Lab. Interactive stations provide hands-on learning experiences, and trained docents lead tours and answer questions. Tours of Long Marine Lab are offered from 1 to 3 p.m. daily (last tour ends at 4 p.m.).

The Seymour Center is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. It is closed Monday. Admission is $5 for adults; $3 for seniors, students, and youths (ages 6 to 16); and free for children ages 5 and under. Admission is free the first Tuesday of each month.


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