The Curry Coastal Pilot

The sounds of construction will be audible for the next few months at

the Northcoast Marine Mammal Center while workers give the facility a


And if center officials get their wish, a much bigger construction project could be in the works.

Dr. Dennis Wood, center founder and veterinarian, said the current

construction work will bring animal enclosures up to code, helping the

center better house ocean creatures.

The nonprofit center in Beachfront Park has been rescuing and rehabilitating stranded, sick or injured seals, sea lions, dolphins, porpoises and whales for more than 19 years.

Over time, the standards for housing animals have changed, and Wood said the goal is to have the facility comply with the specifications of the national Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

"The height of the pens will be raised to prevent splashing from one cage to another," Wood said. "Some (animals) come in with infectious diseases."

In addition to animal enclosure renovations, the facility is scheduled to receive a new roof, new siding, new fiberglass doors, epoxy floors and a fresh coat of paint.

Shannon O. Strange, owner of SOS Construction, said he has 120 days to complete the renovation project. He said his crew started working Jan. 17 and hopes to have the new roof in place by the end of February.

Strange said the project should take two or three months to complete, depending on the weather.

Erica Bachinski, an intern at the center, said that time frame works well as the center expects an influx of animals in March and April.

"Just in time for harbor seal pups," Bachinski said.

Currently, the center is completely empty as volunteers said goodbye to their final releaseable animal last weekend. In addition, Bachinski transported a blind sea lion to another Marine Mammal Center last Thursday.

Wood said the center has taken in 115 animals each year for the past two years. He said the current down time represents a much-needed break for volunteers while also allowing workers to renovate the cages.

Strange said his workers are remodeling the enclosures in stages instead of doing them all at once, just in case an animal comes to the center before construction is finished.

The $100,000 renovation is being paid for by the federal government through the John H. Prescott Marine Mammal Rescue Assistance Grant Program.

Wood said the center has relied on $80,000-$100,000 Prescott grants each year to help operate the facility. He said this year the center received a facility upgrade grant, but didn't receive its usual operations grant.

"Our (paid) operations director had to find a new job," Wood said. "Financially, it's a huge issue for us not getting our operations grant."

The center has 25-30 volunteers, a dozen of which are active on a regular basis. Wood said the center is going to need more volunteers to keep things going.

"We always have a need for funding and volunteers," he said.

Festival fundraiser

In order to help raise funds, the Northcoast Marine Mammal Center is hosting this year's Crescent City Crab, Wine and Cheese Festival. All proceeds from the festival will benefit the center.

The festival is set to take place March 12 from 3 to 9 p.m. at the Crescent City Cultural Center, 1001 Front St.

Admission is free, and attendees will be able to purchase a variety of edibles in support of the center.

This year's festival will also feature a live crab race on the beach. Whichever crab makes it to the ocean first wins the race. Wood said this activity seemed appropriate as the crabs will run to the ocean much like sea lions do when they are released.

Wood said hosting the event is a huge task that he hopes will greatly benefit the center.

Hopes for expansion

In the next couple of months, Wood expects to hear whether or not the center is a recipient of a grant the city sought on behalf of the facility last July.

The city applied for up to $7 million in funding through the California State Parks Nature Education Facilities Grant Program for the marine center. The funds come from Proposition 84, which was passed by voters in 2006 as the Safe Drinking Water Bond Act.

Wood said the grant money would allow the center to expand its operations and build a larger rehabilitation center in Beachfront Park.

According to donated schematics by architect and Mayor Charles Slert, the 25,000-square-foot facility would be comprised of three levels with outdoor pools dotting the landscape.

The first level would house the actual rehabilitation and hospital facility. The second level would feature a lecture hall for public education activities, student lab stations and educational displays. The third level would house another lecture hall, research lab stations and a community events room. The different levels would also offer viewing stations overlooking the pools.

Wood said the current center would be transformed into dorms for visiting interns and that the new facility would be built in front of the old one, closer to the ocean.

"It's a pretty comprehensive plan," Wood said of Slert's designs.

One goal would be to utilize the extra space to expand the center's educational and outreach programs. Wood said the center's board of directors and volunteers have many ideas on how to do this.

"We'd have an auditorium with videos telling people about all the different species," Wood said, giving an example of an educational tactic.

If the grant funds do come through, Wood said it would be a huge boon to the community. He said the new facility would attract visitors and give people another reason to come to Crescent City.

Slert agreed and said it would be an opportunity to have a local landmark that not only provides important marine mammal services but also offers educational opportunities.

"This would put us in the big leagues," Slert said.