One of the many pleasures of boating in the Pacific Northwest is the abundance of wildlife we encounter. On any given day out on the water, we have the opportunity to see otters, seals, sea lions, shorebirds and eagles in their natural habitat. But encountering a pod of orcas can be a more memorable experience than most.
As amazing as these creatures are, however, most boaters know very little about them, including me. I know they speed gracefully along near the surface, exposing that huge dorsal fin, and occasionally they “spy hop” – emerging vertically from the water to take a better look above the surface. Sometimes an orca will leap entirely out of the water, providing an image that any photographer would covet. But I wanted to know more, so during a visit to Friday Harbor, I visited The Whale Museum. Unless you have a degree in marine biology, you’re guaranteed to learn something about these amazing creatures.
- Whale Hotline board
- Genealogy of resident orca pods
- Reconstructed orca skeleton and scale model
- Kids room
The internationally renowned museum was founded in 1979.
The Whale Museum
The internationally renowned facility is one of the only museums of its kind in the world and housed in a historic two story-story building above the Port of Friday Harbor Marina. The museum was founded in 1979 and welcomes 25,000 visitors each year. Its focus on education and research makes it a kid-friendly museum. What makes the museum different than most museums is its subject matter – whales and celebrating a living species that one can see while boating in and around the San Juan Islands (if you are lucky).
The first floor houses a large exhibit hall which is used for lectures and large meetings. It is where you’ll find the whale hotline, which indicates where whales were recently sighted as well as a gift shop, which has DVDs, educational toys and games, posters, cards, nature-inspired jewelry, maps, and clothing. The museum is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, so proceeds go towards education, research, and stewardship.
The main exhibits of the museum are located upstairs. In the stairwell, there is a life-size Orca head above and an Orca mural on the walls. As you proceed up to the second floor, the eerie underwater chirps and whistles of the whales greet you. A reconstructed skeleton and a scale model of the black-and-white whale dominate the main room. It’s an impressive sight that puts the creatures, and you, into perspective.
The main hall has exhibits about the surrounding ecosystem, known as the Salish Sea, with particular emphasis on whales. For thousands of years, the inland waters of the Pacific Northwest have been the summer feeding grounds for several orca pods. Pods J, K, and L, known as the Southern Resident Community, are generally found in the San Juan Islands/southern Vancouver Island area during the months of May-September.
Genealogy display of the Southern Resident Orcas.
Southern Resident Community Exhibit
Perhaps the most intriguing exhibit is the genealogy of the Southern Resident Community. Each Orca can be identified by the shape and size of the fin on its dorsal fin and the gray and white markings beneath and behind the fin (the saddle patch). Whales were separated into pods and sub-pods by birth dates and affiliations, just like a human genealogy tree. If you have a good photo of an orca, you can identify it by checking the file photos and comparing the markings.
Visitors wanting to learn will find diagrams about echolocation and an explanation of how whales use them to navigate. At another interactive exhibit, you can learn more about the acoustics of a whale call, hearing the calls, record your own calls and play them back. There is also a telephone where you can dial up various songs from beluga, humpback and pilot whales.
In a separate alcove, you can watch a 25-minute video full of close-up footage of Pacific Northwest whales in their natural habit and behavioral research results from local biologists. Kids have their own room where they can color, read stories, and watch videos to learn more about whales.
The museum offers an Adopt an Orca Program.
Whale Educational Programs
The museum also hosts a number of programs geared towards saving the whales and educating the public. You can learn more about the Soundwatch Boater Education Program, Marine Naturalist Training Program, and Gray Whale Project during your visit. You can even adopt your very own member of J, K, or L pod with the museum’s Orca Adoption Program.
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The Whale Museum
Hours: Daily, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in May to October, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the off-season.
Admission: Adult $6, Senior $5, Students $3, Children 5 and under free
Distance from Friday Harbor Marina: Around a 4-minute walk