Seattle Aquarium annual report Inspiring Conservation of Our Marine Environment

October 1, 2020

Dear Friend of the Seattle Aquarium,

The Aquarium is open after being closed for over three months to help curb the spread of COVID-19. Yet the challenges have kept coming: We recently had to close again for nearly a week to protect our staff, volunteers and guests from extremely poor air quality due to wildfire smoke. Pier 58, directly south of us, unexpectedly collapsed during its planned demolition, resulting in the temporary closure of The Seattle Great Wheel. And two of our important neighbors and partners, Ivar's Acres of Clams and Argosy Cruises, have made the difficult decision to close until spring of 2021.

We thank you for your support as we continue to navigate what has been one of the most challenging times in the history of our organization, community and world.

And we ask for your continued support by considering a donation to our Resilience Fund. Although the Aquarium is open, it still faces significant financial challenges as we limit guest capacity to protect public health. A gift of any size will make a difference. Please visit SeattleAquarium.org/donate for details.

Although these are difficult times, there is one certainty: The Seattle Aquarium will endure. Our mission of Inspiring Conservation of Our Marine Environment will continue to spur action on the behalf of Puget Sound and the ocean for generations to come.

It’s that foundation—our 43-year history and faith in its long future ahead—that sparked the theme for our 2019 annual report: Inspiring Generations of Conservationists.

We hope you’ll enjoy getting to know a few of the many individuals who have been moved to action on behalf of the marine environment through their involvement with the Aquarium, and viewing highlights of the important work we accomplished last year.

We are committed to continuing that work, and look forward to seeing you at your Seattle Aquarium soon.

Robert W. Davidson, President & CEO, Seattle Aquarium
Melissa Mager, Chair, board of directors, Seattle Aquarium

Inspiring generations of conservationists

Meet some of the heroes who exemplify what the Seattle Aquarium stands for.


Isha Sangani

A youth volunteer finds her voice advocating for change.

Isha Sangani has been a youth volunteer since 2016, with over 600 hours to her credit. “The advocacy makes it so rewarding,” she says.

Her advocacy extends well beyond the Aquarium’s walls. In 2019, Isha participated in the Youth Climate Strike, a public march that inspired millions worldwide. She was also a squad leader at the international Ocean Heroes Boot Camp in Vancouver, B.C., where 300 youth shared their work to prevent plastic pollution.

Isha is a tireless advocate for reducing plastic pollution. Early in 2019, she petitioned Panda Express to switch from single-use plastics to biodegradable options. To date, over 16,000 people have signed on.

“Plastic pollution is pervasive,” she says. “I want to educate the public and motivate Panda Express to take responsibility for the risk its containers pose.”

A 2020 high school graduate, Isha plans to double major in computer science and a marine-science-related field—while continuing her conservation and advocacy work. “I’d like to explore scientific research,” she says, “and remain an activist. I don’t think I could do without either.”

Aiyana Blas-Rojas

A former volunteer, now a college student, offsets her expenses by sharing our mission in our gift shop.

“I like giving people knowledge, inspiring them so they can grow and helping them learn from what I’ve learned,” says Aiyana Blas-Rojas. She did that and more during her two years, and over 750 hours of service, as a Youth Ocean Advocate.

Aiyana was among the first to earn college credit through our badging program partnership with UW Bothell. “I earned free college credit by learning and volunteering at the Aquarium, which made the path toward college more focused and within reach,” she says.

Aiyana is nearing completion of her A.S. degree and has ambitious plans for the future, with an eye on a Ph.D. someday. “I want to be a deep ocean researcher, exploring where other scientists haven’t gone,” she says.

And she’s offsetting her college expenses by working part time at the Aquarium’s gift shop, where most of the staff are current or former volunteers. “We support the Aquarium’s mission by helping customers understand that even little actions can make a difference,” Aiyana comments. “Every person can contribute, and every choice has an impact.”

Noah Chesnin

A former teen volunteer who translated his passion into a career helping preserve the waters surrounding New York City.

Noah Chesnin was 16 when he joined what was then called our teen naturalist program in 1998. “I was shy and nervous,” he recalls. “But I felt confident when I put on that T-shirt and shared my passion with visitors.”

Through his volunteer experience, Noah says, “I learned it was possible to translate my passion into a career.”

Fast forward two decades. After a stint at the Conservation Law Foundation shaping policy related to ocean issues, “I realized I want to focus on engagement and build a public movement,” says Noah.

Now, as the associate director of the New York Seascape Program at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s New York Aquarium, he translates research into conservation messages, oversees policy advocacy, communicates science to policymakers and more, all with the aim of preserving the waters of New York and New Jersey.

Noah still holds a special place in his heart for the Seattle Aquarium, noting, “You’re bridging science, education and communications to connect with hundreds of thousands of people—in the Aquarium, on the beach, online, in the community and in schools. No other institution in Seattle, or the state, has that reach and power.”

Photo caption: In a pre-pandemic photo, Noah Chesnin and WCS New York Aquarium youth ocean leaders participate in a game illustrating how ocean planning can help balance conservation and sustainable use of our ocean.

Brian Harmon

A man finds his professional footing as an adult volunteer and becomes an expert in sustainability.

Brian Harmon was studying at the University of Washington to become a fisheries biologist when he began volunteering with us. “The Seattle Aquarium gave me communication skills and confidence as a speaker,” he says.

Then life threw a curveball. When Brian and his wife moved to Nebraska after she accepted a job there, he discovered that “an extensive knowledge of salmon wasn’t quite so useful,” he laughs.

Brian adapted, completing a master’s degree in natural resource sciences with a research project that honed his computer programming and data analytics skills. This, combined with his interests in conservation and sustainability, eventually led him to Verdis Group, a sustainability consulting firm.

Happily, that work also brought him back to the Seattle Aquarium. We’ve partnered with Verdis Group to develop a sustainability master plan, and Brian is one of the project leads.

“I’m extremely impressed with the Aquarium’s culture and efforts—and excited to see what we can co-create,” he says. “The Aquarium’s mission will only become more important as the region’s population continues to grow and the effects of climate change continue to alter the Salish Sea.”

Karmen Personett

A mother shares her love of the ocean with her five daughters, and the community, on local beaches.

“My oldest daughter, Eva, had the drive to become our family’s first volunteer beach naturalist,” says Karmen Personett. “She enjoyed learning from the Aquarium’s naturalists, and they encouraged her to volunteer.”

After signing Eva and herself up for volunteer training, Karmen says, “I quickly learned that I enjoyed the program as much as she did!” Through the years, she’s added her other daughters to the program as well, noting, “My youngest had always been in tow, but she was proud to become an ‘official’ naturalist last year.”

Explains Karmen, “There’s a cycle: The Seattle Aquarium invests in training us; our knowledge and curiosity increase; we feel deeper empathy for marine life and the environment; we share what we’ve learned; more people become curious and develop similar passions; and the cycle continues.”

Karmen concludes, “I want to pass on to my kids that we all have a responsibility to be good stewards of our amazing, spectacular planet.”

Karmen and her girls completed this season’s Beach Naturalist program training via Zoom—and continued to inspire and educate local beachgoers while maintaining physical distancing over the summer!

Photo caption: Back row, from left to right: Eva (with her arm around Kaia), Elsa, Karmen. Front row: Louisa, Zada.

The Vititoe, MacNeil and Kornblum families

Passing the torch of commitment to our mission from grandparents to parents to grandchild—and back again.

Bill and Sue Vititoe

Longtime donors Sue and Bill Vititoe’s committed support is a family affair, extending to their daughters Laura MacNeil and Stephanie Kornblum, and Stephanie’s daughter Celia.

Laura and Ian MacNeil

Although Laura joined our board in 2019, she and her husband, Ian, have been involved with the Aquarium for over 15 years. “We want to be able to enjoy Puget Sound and the ocean for years to come,” she says. “What we do today to educate and preserve the ocean will benefit society for generations.”

Stephanie and Aaron Kornblum

When Stephanie and her husband, Aaron, moved to Seattle, “becoming involved with the Aquarium seemed like a natural step,” she comments. After years of attending our fundraising events, Stephanie joined our board in 2011. “The mission is the cornerstone of everything we hold dear, and we pass that on to our three children,” she says.

Celia Kornblum

Celia Kornblum has provided over 400 hours of volunteer service to the Aquarium and is aiming for more. “The experience and training we get as volunteers is educational and truly impacts the public’s view,” she says. “The Aquarium is invaluable because it teaches people in the community about the region, animals and environment—and how critical they are to the welfare of us all.”


Matriarch of an animal family that inspires hundreds of thousands of people each year.

Our theme of Inspiring Generations wouldn’t be complete without featuring the generations of sea otters who have made their homes with us. In fact, we were the first in the world to have sea otters conceived, born and live to adulthood in a zoo or aquarium. Since our opening in 1977, we’ve had nine successful pups born here.

Three were birthed by our own sea otter matriarch, Lootas. She came to us at approximately 6 weeks old—rescued after her mother was accidentally killed by a boat in 1997. After she was deemed non-releasable by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service due to her young age at the time she was orphaned, the Seattle Aquarium became her permanent home.

Lootas’ first pup, Yaku, just celebrated his 20th birthday at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. Her second, Aniak, now 18, lives with us and gave birth to Sekiu, who lives at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. Her third pup, Alki, is 15 and resides at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium.

We couldn’t be more grateful to be the stewards of stories, like Lootas’, that inspire generations of visitors to the Seattle Aquarium to care for and protect our fragile marine environment.

Photo caption: Lootas and pup Aniak, 2002.

2019 program impact: your support in action

Thank you again and always for the incredible support that allows us to deliver on our mission with many wide-ranging communities and audiences—and across so many different channels.

31,445 guests introduced to our mission and conservation messaging during 155 third-party event rentals.


20,000+ visitors reached by 127 volunteers in a record-breaking 22nd season of the Cedar River Salmon Journey.


18,571 complimentary admissions via the Seattle Public Library and King County Library museum pass programs.


55 diverse outreach opportunities provided by Community Engagement staff via specialized programming with Connections program partners.


$25 for a Connections program Family Plus Aquarium membership (a savings of nearly 90%).

Complimentary tickets provide access to families who might not otherwise be able to experience the Aquarium.

84,232 complimentary tickets distributed to 350+ partners via the Connections program.


DreamNights create opportunities for families to enjoy the Aquarium at their own pace.

873 guests attended two annual DreamNight events for families touched by disabilities or serious medical conditions.


823 guests attended Open House for multilingual families, with materials presented in eight languages.


Sign language interpretation is offered at exhibits across the Aquarium on Deaf Community Days.

243 guests attended biannual Deaf Community Day events.

Beach Naturalist program highlights:

  • 23 beach dates
  • 263 volunteer naturalists
  • 61,791 interactions
  • 21st season

43,000 students and chaperones visited the Aquarium in 2019.

  • During those visits, they participated in 1,100 programs.
  • Of those visiting, 63% received a scholarship.


The Aquarium provided programming for 2,000 students in 83 school outreach programs.

  • When interpretive programming expanded to weekends thanks to our NOAA Orca Outreach and Education grant, we were able to offer an additional 400+ hours of experiential education.


Caregivers and kids learn and play together at our free, drop-in Toddler Time program.

3,100+ kids and caregivers attended Toddler Time.

  • This number represented a 14% increase over 2018.

Salmon Homecoming School Days:

  • Attended by 873 students and chaperones from 15 schools/districts.


High school students conduct real-world research on local beaches through our Community Science program.

Community Science program:

  • 333 students conducted scientific monitoring
  • 10 beaches
  • 14th year


Learning in the field at one of our popular summer camps.

Marine Summer Camp program:

  • Attended by 270 youth
  • $10,000+ in scholarships awarded
  • 19th year
Our "folks in blue" are always ready to provide explanations and inspiration at the Aquarium's exhibits.

Our Visitor Engagement team staffed:

  • 4,500 interpretive talks
  • 92 guided exhibit tours
  • 1,700 diver experiences
  • 650 special events for guests
  • 286 story times

Raised our voice.

We grew our ocean policy and advocacy program in many ways:

  • 39 federal and state comment letters written and signed on to, including 12 led by our team.
  • Three campaigns launched.
  • Engagement via Aquarium guests, petitions, blogs and social media.
  • First time participating in Capitol Hill Ocean Week.
  • Served on coalitions and committees, including the Washington Environmental Priorities Coalition, Aquarium Conservation Partnership Executive Committee, the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife's Commercial Whale Watching License Program Advisory Committee, and NOAA's task force on pinniped management.


Visitor Engagement staff policy work:

Collected signatures and asked voters to support bills and petitions on rockfish recovery, orca habitat, the Endangered Species Act and reducing single-use plastics.


26 presentations provided to academic and community audiences, including webinars at Amazon and Seattle Children's.


Hosted squad leader training for young conservationists from all over North America to serve as peer mentors at the Ocean Heroes Boot Camp in Vancouver, B.C.

Barnacles are the unofficial "mascots" of our empathy workshops.

Five Developing Empathy for Conservation Outcomes workshops hosted for peer institutions, including Monterey Bay Aquarium and the National Zoo, to foster empathy for conservation.

We’ve hosted 20 of these workshops, for 48 zoos and aquariums, in 24 states with a combined annual attendance of 54+ million.


Hosted Congressional listening session on fisheries:

  • Four members of Congress
  • Nine panelists
  • 50 audience members


Catastrophe by the Sea.

Published this empathy-themed children’s book with award-winning author Brenda Peterson and Caldecott-winning illustrator Ed Young.

Planting trees to benefit the watershed and sequester carbon.

200+ conifers planted along the Snoqualmie River with our friends from the Woodland Park Zoo and Stewardship Partners. The Aquarium purchased 83 of the trees to sequester 414 tons of carbon from the atmosphere.


35 people from British Columbia, Washington and Oregon participated in the first Pacific Northwest Microplastics Monitoring workshop hosted by the Seattle Aquarium.

10th year of sea otter foraging research:

  • Documented 702 sea otter foraging dives (including what, how much and how fast the otters ate and dove).
  • Data collected seasonally across 11 sites over 24 days in the field.


Washington’s annual sea otter census:

  • 2,785 sea otters counted in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
  • Earlier in the year, the Aquarium team counted a record 2,375 otters across three sites on a single day—more than the last official census count from 2017!


11th Sea Otter Conservation Conference:

The world’s largest gathering of experts from the U.S., Canada, Europe, Japan and Russia:

  • 193 attendees
  • Two panels
  • 49 talks
  • Three breakout sessions

15th year of rocky reef research in the Salish Sea:

  • 35 dive surveys
  • 11 sites
  • 17.5 hours of video captured
  • 16 species and thousands of fish counted

11th year of Hawaii coral reef research:

  • 16 dive surveys
  • Eight sites
  • Eight hours of video captured
  • 150+ species of fish counted
Director of Conservation Engagement & Learning Jim Wharton.

Staff held leadership positions across a variety of Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) committees. Director of Conservation Engagement & Learning Jim Wharton continues as public engagement coordinator for AZA’s SAFE Sharks and Rays conservation initiative.


Testing a tail-feather-mounted tag to aid research in the field.

The Bird & Mammal team assisted researchers from Oregon State University with their marbled murrelet habitat-usage project. The team trialed a small tail-feather-mounted tag with our female rhinoceros auklet. This tag was deployed onto wild birds to track and locate nesting sites within old-growth forests on the Oregon coast.


Hosted first Pycnopodia Recovery Workshop:

Participants from Alaska, British Columbia, Washington and Oregon discussed the status of the species along the West Coast, management options and research needs.

Barney has been trained to participate in his own health care.


The 34-year-old harbor seal (that’s 95 in human years!) successfully underwent a procedure to diagnose potential health issues.


Director of Life Sciences Grant Abel.

New Director of Life Sciences Grant Abel

Grant joined us from Ocean Park Hong Kong, where he served as director of animal care. He also played a key role in a project to help save the world’s most endangered cetacean: the vaquita porpoise.


Ahanu, who joined Molalla in our river otter habitat.

Welcome, Ahanu!

Enhancements were made to the river otter habitat ahead of the 8-year-old male’s arrival from the Denver Zoo. He settled in quickly and was soon seen eating and sleeping in the same den with his “roomie,” Molalla!

Associate Curator of Birds & Mammals Traci Belting demonstrates how our harbor seals are trained to willingly participate in their own health care.

Traci Belting

Our associate curator of birds and mammals served on the steering committee for the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) Marine Mammal Taxon Advisory Group. Traci was tasked with developing population sustainability goals for managed animal programs such as the sea otter.


Expert animal health care is a team effort.

New digital X-ray machine purchased:

It supports animal care and significantly improves our veterinary program.


NPR radio series shout-out:

The Aquarium has staff on duty 24 hours a day, and the nocturnal shifts were featured on a program about Seattle at night.

The tiny western snowy plover weighs about as much as a 9-volt battery.

Welcomed two western snowy plovers:

Both were deemed non-releasable due to wing damage. We’re grateful to have the opportunity to care for and showcase this species, which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.


What do you call a tufted puffin chick? A puffling!

Tufted puffin chick hatched:

This female emerged after a 43-day incubation. She’s the result of a breeding recommendation from the AZA Tufted Puffin Species Survival Plan. The national coordinator for this program and two other studbooks is lead bird biologist Sara Perry.


Food assessment completed:

We developed proprietary metrics to rank the sustainability and carbon footprint of all we feed to the animals in our care.


Welfare assessments completed:

The Life Sciences team reviewed and responded to any concerns using evidence-based decisions.

Looking ahead:

The Seattle Aquarium’s Ocean Pavilion

A thriving, vibrant Seattle Aquarium is key to our city’s identity. Our priority is a strong organization post-pandemic—both to resume the Aquarium’s full service, and to enable the construction and opening of the Ocean Pavilion: centerpiece of Seattle’s new waterfront park. Planning and design continues so we can be “shovel ready” as soon as circumstances allow.

The Ocean Pavilion and Waterfront Park projects will rebuild our city’s connection to and relationship with the waterfront and the values we hold dear. We remain deeply committed to these projects and our partnerships with Friends of Waterfront Seattle, the Pike Place Market Foundation and the City of Seattle.

The Seattle Aquarium is a longtime and trusted leader in the science and conservation of our local waters. We’re excited to take the next step: with new conservation partnerships in the Indo-Pacific and Coral Triangle. These will help expand our reach to tell a fuller ocean story—demonstrating that Earth’s waters are all connected. And, that what happens here affects ocean health around the globe.

In our awe-inspiring new building, a defining civic gem along our city’s improved waterfront, we’ll inspire millions of visitors to act on behalf of a healthier ocean. We look forward to sharing updates on this once-in-a-generation project, and we thank you for the support that has brought us this far.

2019 summary financial information

The statements shown above are condensed versions of our audited financial statements and do not include footnote disclosures. Complete audited financial statements are available on the Seattle Aquarium website.


2019 fundraising events

Thank you for your support—and, whether it’s live or virtual, your continued help is more crucial than ever.

Attendees bid high and often at Splash! and we're so grateful for the support.

On June 7, over 550 guests raised $1,045,000 to support our mission. The passionate fund-a-need remarks by Honorary Chairs Ashley OConnor McCready and Mike McCready lit a fire in the room, as did Mike’s donation of two personally autographed guitars. These results reflect the great efforts of Event Chair Michael Trzupek and the Splash! committee, including Jean Brosell, Eddie Chang, Terren Drake, Michael Guidon, Melissa Mager, Nathan Rauschenberg and Carla Wigen, as well as 100+ volunteers who gave 400+ hours of service.

Curator of Conservation Research Dr. Shawn Larson showcases some of our research work at SeaChange.

At our seventh conservation and research fundraising breakfast at the Sheraton Grand on October 15, nearly 400 guests enjoyed keynote speaker Dr. Jackie Ogden’s remarks and were inspired to be agents of change for conservation by Director of Conservation Engagement & Learning Jim Wharton. Led by Event Chair Casey Schuchart, the event raised $146,000 thanks to your generous support. We were also delighted to present Linda and Ted Johnson with the Conservation Leadership Award for their outstanding and sustaining philanthropic support.

Adult Swim introduces young professionals to the Aquarium and our mission.

Led by Event Chair Devin Kunysz, the auxiliary board’s Adult Swim event made November 8 a night to remember. Over 500 of Seattle’s young professionals were introduced to the Aquarium and our mission through special animal talks and feedings, and the event raised more than $50,000.

Hundreds of passionate, dedicated volunteers are one of our greatest and most unique strengths.

In 2019, a total of 1,251 volunteers (524 of them new) donated 113,423 hours of service, the equivalent of 54.5 full-time staff, to the Aquarium at an estimated value of over $2.8 million. These figures include 31,960 hours of service by 289 participants in our Youth Ocean Advocates program. We’re grateful every day for this inspiring and dedicated group.

To view a list of our 2019 volunteers, go to SeattleAquarium.org/adult-volunteers.

Your support has never meant more.

Your commitment helps sustain our work to:

  • Inspire community members to act on behalf of the ocean.
  • Bring conservation education to schoolchildren.
  • Advocate for important policy changes for the health of local and global waters.
  • Further our important research efforts.
  • Advance our award-winning volunteer program.
  • Provide the very best care for the animals entrusted to us.

Questions? Please email philanthropy@seattleaquarium.org.

Please consider a donation to our Resilience Fund to help us continue our important work.

Inspiring Conservation of Our Marine Environment