Imagining a new Seymour Center as climate change, and time, drive new realities

Jonathan Hicken, executive director of the Seymour Marine Discovery Center, stands near a blue whale skeleton
Jonathan Hicken, executive director of the Seymour Marine Discovery Center, stands in front of Ms. Blue — the longest blue whale skeleton on display in the United States.
(Hillary Ojeda / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The Seymour Marine Discovery Center at UC Santa Cruz’s coastal campus is gearing up to revamp its visitor exhibits and experience. New executive director Jonathan Hicken hopes the center will become a hub for local leaders and community members to contribute to climate change resilience.

Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.

Change is in the air at UC Santa Cruz’s Seymour Marine Discovery Center. Leadership change and climate change.

Q&A with Seymour Center director Jonathan Hicken

Jonathan Hicken, new executive director of the Seymour Center, is laying out a new vision for the center, one he says can unite curious community members, world-renowned UCSC scientists and driven climate advocates.

Creative renderings show a new interior of the visitor center that Hicken said is designed to recreate the journey of a scientist. Visitors walk into the front room, where they get inspired by ocean wildlife in fish tanks, then move on to a maker lab to experiment with their new ideas before finishing up in an action hub.

He started on the job just a year ago, following longtime director Julie Barrett Heffington, who retired in 2020 after 21 years. Hicken is leading the center into its biggest project in over 20 years: reinventing the visitor experience, with this unifying role as the focal point.

Hicken describes that vision: “We’re gonna be designing co-created experiences with scientists and nonprofits and cities and policymakers. And really address these issues that are most relevant to us here, now.”

The center’s new exhibit, Water’s Extreme Journey, is a step in that direction, for several reasons. Primary among them are the inclusion of the perspectives of local climate researchers and leaders as well as of ways community members can start to be involved in taking action. The interactive exhibit takes visitors through a maze of a raindrop’s journey.

As with many institutions, COVID threw a curveball at the 20,000-square-foot Seymour Center, which has served as the campus’ public-facing marine lab since its current building opened in 2000. The education center of Joseph M. Long Marine Laboratory has served as a hands-on facility for a half century — visited by many school groups, visitors and local families, more than 35,000 visitors in a normal pre-pandemic year.

Visitors can learn about the latest research from the Long Marine Lab, touch a swell shark or a slimy sea star, maybe even spot an octopus in one of the aquarium tanks. Seymour sits amid the fast-growing UC Santa Cruz Coastal Science Campus, which includes NOAA Fisheries’ Southwest Fisheries Science Center Fisheries Ecology Division, the Ocean Health Building and the Long Marine Lab.

Hicken describes the impacts of the pandemic as “catastrophic.” The Seymour Center is funded mostly by ticket sales, memberships, facility rentals, donors and contributions from the university. UCSC runs the building, the seawater system and the finance and human resources departments. Hicken estimates the university provides over half of the total funding needed to operate the center.

When the pandemic hit, ticket sales quickly dwindled amid closures, and the center’s full-time and part-time staff of just over 20 was reduced to about five people, he says. Now, the staff has been rebuilding and is at about 20 again. Its robust team of volunteers ran limited outdoor programs for the public until the center formally reopened last October.

When Hicken was hired, his role saw change. While his predecessor reported to the campus’ Institute of Marine Sciences, Hicken now reports to the dean of the Physical and Biological Sciences Division, Paul Koch. And the university is now paying the director’s salary, which it hadn’t before. The financial support to the center has “ebbed and flowed since this building was opened in 2000,” Hicken says, and emphasized the additional operational support.

The entrance of the Seymour Marine Discovery Center at UC Santa Cruz's coastal campus.
The entrance of the Seymour Marine Discovery Center on UC Santa Cruz’s coastal campus.
(Via Seymour Marine Discovery Center)

“UCSC provides the seawater pump system and maintains the grounds around the coastal science campus,” he said. “They provide custodial services, HR, accounting, legal, fundraising assistance, and many other hidden services that a normal nonprofit would have to pay for.”

When Hicken was hired, Koch told him that coastal climate resilience research would be a focal point of the division. That work and focus is now funded in part by an allocation of $20 million from the state toward the creation of a center for coastal climate resilience at UCSC. That center’s wider idea: build collaborations between and among its campus researchers and state and federal agencies to address climate change challenges with an emphasis on coastal regions.

Following his meeting with Koch, Hicken says he started talking with leaders in the community in coastal climate resilience and realized how the marine center could help play a part in this greater goal. He saw a need to connect the science experts, “boots on the ground” leaders and community members who were all contributing to climate change resilience.

“It became really clear,” he said. “The Seymour Center has a role to match the science happening at UCSC with the coastal climate issues that are most relevant to this community, and invite the people who live, work and play in Santa Cruz into those ideas, into those discussions in a fun and vibrant and inclusive way.”

To hone that vision, Seymour hired Gyroscope, an Oakland-based museum design firm. The center’s work with the firm recently finished a conceptual framework, with renderings for renovations to the visitor center and ideas for new kinds of exhibits.

Its recently opened Water’s Extreme Journey exhibit is indicative of the kinds of changes Gyroscope has proposed, which include proposed renovations for the visitor center.

That work is a start.

“This first phase was basically establishing this creative roadmap,” Hicken said. “The next step is to find people in the community who believe that this is an important part of building a community that is preparing for life in the changing climate. In other words, we’re fundraising.”

Hicken expands on the new plans below.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Lookout: What will the new visitor experience at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center be like?

Jonathan Hicken: This would be the first major retrofit of Seymour Center since the building was constructed. It’s been 20-plus years.

The building that we know and love today, the bones of it aren’t going to change. The changes will happen once you enter those doors. So you can imagine new and different kinds of aquarium tanks, you might imagine more interactive science exhibits, more hands-on experiences. We’re imagining a maker lab where people can actually come in and not just learn about the science, but actually get their hands dirty and make a scientific instrument or test something and play the role of a scientist and learn by doing. We imagine a corner of Seymour Center called the Action Hub, where people will have a deliberate space for someone making a pledge, or maybe writing a letter to a policymaker about sea-level rise, or let’s say, learning about and being introduced to environmental heroes in our community, especially for children to see like, “Hey, I could do that.”

A rendering of the entry of the Seymour Marine Discovery Center.
A rendering of the entry of the Seymour Marine Discovery Center. Plans are still in the works and not yet finalized for the retrofit of the visitor center.
(Via Seymour Marine Discovery Center)

Lookout: Can you give an example of what these new experiences might look like?

Hicken: I want to point out our new exhibit, Water’s Extreme Journey. We invited a bunch of water leaders, UCSC scientists, nonprofit leaders, the water districts, people from the city, the county — anybody thinking about and working on water. We invited them here and we said, what are the most important things to tell this community about? We designed and installed five panels that are sourced from the people in our community who are closest to this issue. And the three issues that bubbled to the surface were questions of water supply, water quality, and then drought and climate change. I think this is really representative of the kind of programming we want to do more of. Let’s invite the community in. Let’s figure out what matters to them. And let’s hear from a wide variety of voices from North County, South County, everybody in between, amplify their voices and their work and mobilize this community to support them. So it’s really important that this did not just come from the Seymour Center.

All future experiences at the Seymour Center are gonna have a couple of common components. First, science education. When you come here, you’re gonna learn something about science, about the ocean or the coast. Two: it’s going to be super relevant to your life if you live, work or play in Santa Cruz. Imagine things like sea level rise, wildfire, water, coastal agriculture, biodiversity, and fisheries. These are all things that are really relevant to this community. I hope people begin to think of the Seymour Center as a place to start if they want to deeply understand the environmental context of Santa Cruz County, who’s studying it, what’s happening, who’s working on what, if you want to get involved. I invite you to start here. We will help connect you to the person, the organization, the topic that you’re most passionate about and ways for you to get involved and to engage.

Lookout: Climate change is upon us. Tell us more about Seymour’s possible role.

Hicken: The impacts of climate change on this community are here. They’re happening now. They’re impacting some communities more than others. There’s great science happening in the community. There’s a great boots-on-the-ground action happening at the city and nonprofits in the county. And it’s important that this happened right now, because these impacts aren’t slowing down and it’s a problem for everybody. The whole community needs to be invited into it, to take action to come up with solutions. And the Seymour Center can be that physical gathering place for those things to happen. Like I was saying earlier, so much environmental news, climate change news is scary. Overwhelming. Sometimes it makes us want to curl up in a ball and never come out of our house. That kind of messaging isn’t going to help us get to where we need to go. It needs to be fun. There needs to be festivals with live music and food. We need to invite people and meet them where they’re at. And give them a place to engage in a way to engage that feels good to them. And so that’s why this is important at this moment in time.

Visiting the Seymour Center: The center is open Wednesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Entry for adults is $12 and $9 for children ages 3 to 17. Students with IDs can visit for $9 and seniors 65 and older can visit for $11. UCSC undergraduate students with IDs, Seymour Center members and toddlers visit for free. Its new exhibit, Water’s Extreme Journey, runs through the end of the year.