Marine science center grows in popularity
By Andrew Jokela - Staff Reporter
In 15 years, Highline's Marine Science and Technology Center (MaST) has anchored a spot in Puget Sound's marine science community.
This year, MaST celebrates their 15th birthday.
Rus Higley, MaST's director, spoke to a crowded classroom of community members and MaST volunteers on Saturday, June 2, as part of the Science on the Sound speaker series.
"It turns out that we've done a lot in 15 years," he said, chuckling.
MaST started as little more than a couple of abandoned outbuildings on a pier in the late 1990s. Originally, the buildings had been built to facilitate Highline's long defunct commercial diving program, and didn't have running water.
"It was very clear that these buildings had been abandoned for quite some time," said Higley, showing a picture of a building interior inordinately covered in bird droppings.
In 2000, the center opened as Highline's Marine Science Center, which featured a double-wide trailer as a classroom.
"Sam Shabb [a Highline biology instructor] was one of the first instructors to bring [marine science] classes down here for lab," Higley said.
At the time, Higley and volunteers wrangled together some tanks from pond-liners and wood from The Home Depot, and were able to make their own water supply system using flow regulators and PVC piping. These tanks were used to house marine life captured by diving teams.
Then, in 2001, the center was heavily damaged by a storm, and closed.
"It was actually tagged as unsafe [by the city's inspectors]. We couldn't even enter it," said Higley.
So, the facilities underwent extensive renovation, and was renamed and reopened in 2003, becoming the current iteration – MaST.
During the renovation, the wood and pond-liner tanks were exchanged for acrylic tanks, allowing viewers to easily see the life inside.
Since then, MaST has grown to include more than 300 species of native aquatic life, and the center is open as a free public aquarium on Saturdays.
"When we first opened, we had 90 visitors on our busiest day. Now, we had almost double that on our slowest day last year," Higley said.
MaST welcomed 19,000 visitors in 2017, Higley said, and is on track to see more than 25,000 this year.
Since its beginning, MaST has become a vital beneficial community resource. Over the years, MaST's staff and volunteers have helped removing and studying beached sea life, educating the public, and more recently, sponsoring a local elementary school team to create an underwater drone.
The drone was used in competition to perform various activities, such as turning levers, pushing objects, and picking up objects to move them around, Higley said.
"These kids are phenomenal," said Higley. "They designed this ROV [Remote Operated Vehicle] themselves, all we did was the wiring. It can go up, down, back, and forward. Unlike other ROVs, it can also move laterally."
The team of students, including Higley's son, went on to win first place in their competition.
Despite the amount of work done by MaST, Higley said that they run a very lean crew.
"We only have a handful of paid staff members," he said. "Most of our day-to-day operation is handled by volunteers."
MaST has similar directives to some other small non-profit marine life centers in the Puget Sound area. However, these centers don't usually talk to each other, something Higley wants to fix.
"We want to create a communication network for the people doing the work, not just the executives," Higley said. That way, if a problem arises, more brains can come together to solve it.
"It's been a long journey," said Higley. "We're extremely thankful for everybody who has donated their blood, sweat, and tears to make it happen."