All done: See what's new and improved at the Oregon Coast Aquarium

NEWPORT, Ore. - The seals and sea lions at the Oregon Coast Aquarium now have more room to play and one of the biggest gripes for visitors - not being able to see them very well - has been addressed.

The aquarium just finished up a four-month project to renovate their Pinniped exhibit and the official re-opening was held on Saturday. Not only are there more pools for the seals and sea lions, but some of the rocks blocking the view have been removed so folks can get a better look.

"The renovations are spectacular," said Ken Lytwyn, Curator of Marine Mammals for the aquarium. "I'm happy, the staff is happy, the animals are going to like it a lot more - especially with the extra holding pools - and our guests are going to love it."

For Noel Sutton, one of the aquarium's Marine Mammalogists, it means a chance to show off more of what she and the staff do for the seals and sea lions. And it gives visitors a much better chance to see the animals close-up - something that was a bit of a challenge before.

"What really touched me was the first day that we had the whole exhibit open I saw a man in a wheelchair and he was right by the glass," she said. "Before, (someone in a wheelchair) would have to crane their neck or would get pushed to the back and now they're right there, front and center. And it's the same thing for little kids and others. I think that's a really big deal."

Sutton is tasked with keeping the seals and sea lions active and mentally stimulated. She said having more space certainly helps.

"My job is to make every day as new and different as possible for the animals, which sounds really easy but it's pretty difficult," she said. "We create different environments for them with the environments that we already have established, create new social situations for them, create new training sessions and have them work through different things."

We asked Sutton (pictured at right) if it's like taking care of kids at a daycare and she laughed and told us it kind of is, with some differences, of course.

"They are in the water and they are still wild animals," she said. "There are a lot of things that you need to be worried about and take precautions about."

For those who work at the aquarium, Saturday's grand re-opening of the Pinniped exhibit was also a chance to honor a man who spent two decades there and who passed away just last year.

The exhibit was dedicated to long-time veterinarian Dr. Steven Brown (also a board member for the aquarium) and those who knew him said this is the type of thing he would have loved to see.

"This was his dream," said Carrie Lewis, President/CEO of the Oregon Coast Aquarium. "That our visitors could interact and see the animals in their environment."

A plaque honoring Dr. Steven Brown. Photo by Shannon L. Cheesman,

About the Pinnipeds

The aquarium has six Harbor seals and three California sea lions in its care. That's Ken Lytwyn, Curator of Marine Mammals for the aquarium, in the picture getting a 'kiss.'

Harbor seals:

  • Candy - July 15, 1979
  • Swap - September, 1991
  • Skinny - June 1, 1975
  • Tazzy - 2009
  • Pinky - June 25, 1986
  • Boots - January 27, 1988

California sea lions

  • Quill - June 12, 1990
  • Lea - June 1, 1989
  • Max - May 20, 1990

About the Project

The renovation project cost $500,000 - half of it came from a Tourism Facilities grant from the City of Newport and the rest came from private donations. Here's a look at some of the numbers so you can see how the exhibit changed:

  • The viewing area increased from 96 square feet to 404 square feet.
  • The above-water viewing area increased from 23 feet of linear viewing to 49 feet.
  • Before, only 32 people could watch a marine mammal training session and now it can accommodate 135.
  • Feeding and training sessions have been increased from two to four per day. And they are longer now - instead of 10 minutes, they will run for 15 minutes.

On Saturday, KATU got a chance to step behind the scenes and take a look at the extra holding pools for the seals and and sea lions. Lytwyn explained what a benefit it is to the aquarium.

"If we had a medical emergency or if we had to quarantine an animal or if animals weren't getting along, we needed more than just one pool that they could go to," he explained.

Behind the scenes: A new pool at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. This particular one is on a separate filtration system and can be used for quarantine if need be. Photo by Shannon L. Cheesman,