Santa Barbara’s historic Stearns Wharf, built in 1872, is home to Madame Rosinka, spiritual adviser, The Great Pacific Ice Cream Company, Moby Dick Restaurant and, soon, a new 6,700-square foot state-of-the-art marine research and education facility.

In September, the current Sea Center and Nature Conservancy buildings on Stearns Wharf closed their doors to the public. The buildings will be torn down in preparation for the construction of an extensive new facility, slated to open in December 2004. Construction is planned to begin later this month.

The original Sea Center opened in 1987 as a visitor center for the Santa Barbara Channel Marine Sanctuary. After 16 years, the popularity of the center outgrew its size, said Karl Hutterer, executive director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, which includes the center.

“A little over four years ago, the trustees of the museum decided that the old Sea Center was too small and did not serve the functions that it had evolved into,” Hutterer said. “It was originally designed as a visitor center for the sanctuary, but it had evolved into a major educational facility and it was not able to serve a sufficient number of visitors who came out to Stearns Wharf.”

The new Sea Center will be two stories tall and roughly 6,700 square feet. Hutterer said the project should cost $8 million. Funding has come mainly from private donations and gifts. The project has raised $6.5 million to date.

Demolition of the existing buildings is scheduled to start today, with wharf construction slated to begin in early November. The first stage of construction will be reinforcement of the wharf at the building site.

The exhibits for the new facility are being built at the Academy Studios in Novato, Calif.

A life-size model of a mother gray whale and her calf will hang in the entry of the new Sea Center. The entry is also supposed to display an 18-foot-long mobile glass sculpture. The interactive piece will be a cross section of the channel, displaying all the life and activities in it.

One major exhibit will be an operating tide pool with a Plexiglas tunnel underneath it so children can crawl underneath the exhibit and see inside the tide pool.

Another display will be a large tank housing different species of rockfish and outlining rockfish demographics in the channel. There will also be displays of the life cycles of marine creatures, from egg and larva through juvenile and adult stages.

“One area will be entirely devoted to oceanography itself: water quality, weather, an ROV (remote-operated vehicle) for exploring the oceans,” Hutterer said. “There will also be a theater with ongoing film presentations and an area devoted to ongoing restoration research in the Santa Barbara Channel.”

But the most popular exhibit may be “whale karaoke.”

“It’s a sound booth with computerized displays, where you can activate the sounds of four different marine mammals and explore the sounds they make in particular kinds of circumstances, such as feeding or courtship or danger,” Hutterer said. “Then there’s a playback facility, so you can actually try yourself to sing it back and hear what you have done and compare it with the original. It’s like language learning.”

The 37-foot model gray whale, which hung suspended in the original Sea Center building, has been moved to the Museum of Natural History, where it awaits the construction of its new home.

“We think it’s going to be a tremendous addition to Santa Barbara,” Hutterer said.

The Sea Center is still welcoming donations; anyone interested in making a contribution can visit for more information.