Orca Whale

Whale Museum in friday harbor

By Anne Erickson

Spotting an Orca is the quintessential San Juan Islands experience, and the best way to guarantee a sighting is a visit to The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor. This museum is also a must-stop for anyone who’s been lucky enough to spot an orca in the wild; because once you see one, you’ll want to figure out how to repeat the experience.

Launched in 1979 to share research on the southern resident orcas, it was the first museum in the country dedicated to a species of wild animal. And in the more than 40 years it has been open within sight of the very waters where this extended family group of whales lives for the majority of their lives, The Whale Museum has helped people from all over the world learn about - and advocate for – these endangered orcas.

“It is an awesome way to get truly connected to the orcas and their ecosystem. People often get a quick peek at the orcas or other marine critters and want to know more. The museum is the perfect spot for that,” - Jenny Atkinson, Executive Director of The Whale Museum


One of the museum’s centerpieces is a memorial of sorts: the skeleton of Sooke, a three-year-old member of the L-pod that washed up on Long Beach in 2012, dead from trauma that left no open wounds. Though there are other skeletons in the museum, little Sooke is the one that illustrates how fragile this population of local orcas is. There’s also an extensive family tree showing the genealogy of all the Southern Resident orcas, including Sooke’s family, complete with photos of dorsal fins and saddle patches for identification: an orca’s saddle patch is as individual as a human fingerprint. Visitors can hear and see whales here, and there’s also plenty to learn about other denizens of the Salish Sea. Visiting is a surefire way to catch the ever-present buzz of orca obsession that’s everywhere in the San Juan Islands, and get some solid whale watching tips. “We also offer guidance on viewing the whales from any platform – boat, kayak or land,” said Atkinson.

Lime Kiln State Park Watch whales at Lime Kiln State Park
Orca Whale  Orca breaching the water near Lime Kiln State Park

A visit also directly impacts these whales for the better: The Whale Museum's conservation and education efforts extend far beyond the building that houses the exhibits. Across the island from the museum is Lime Kiln State Park - considered one of the best places in the world to view whales from land. The Whale Museum operates a hydrophone there that streams 24/7 - (http://seasound.org) you can check in online and if your timing's right, perhaps hear orca calls. The museum also has a Marine Naturalist training program and created the Soundwatch Boater Education Program to educate recreational boaters about their potential negative impact on whale feeding patterns, communications and safety. And the museum's Whale Sighting Hotline (1-800-562-8832) has been collecting data from lucky people spotting whales for more than four decades.

As of this writing The Whale Museum’s exhibits are scheduled to be closed at least until mid-January 2021, per Washington State’s most recent COVID-19 guidelines and the museum's annual closure for refurbishment and inventory. The good news there are plenty of unique ways to support the museum’s mission, and still get your orca on. For now, the best course is to visit the museum online where you can shop and adopt!

You can add a southern resident to your family pod with the Adopt An Orca program, and take a specific orca under your fin. Adoption includes a personalized certificate with a photo of your whale, a biography and genealogy chart of your new addition, some orca swag including a bumper sticker, and best of all, a one-year museum membership – which means free admission and a 10% discount at the Museum Store: Not a bad deal for $40.

Or, bring a whale to work: The museum has an awesome selection of virtual backgrounds shot by local photographers. For $10 you can choose from dozens of photos of San Juan Island wildlife, among them southern resident orcas breaching, spy-hopping and having far more fun that you’re having at your 9:30 am Zoom huddle. Check out the zoom background gallery HERE.

Museum Mural

The Whale Museum's exterior mural

Gallery Orca

Inside The Whale Museum gallery

Whale Museum Giftshop

The Whale Museum giftshop

You can also support the museum by shopping online for all things Salish Sea at The Whale Museum gift shop.  Orca cookie cutters,  a T-shirt depicting each and every member of the J pod, and handmade orca masks by island resident Shelley Alan are just a handful of the one-of-a-kind items you can buy. Also worth noting again, the brick and mortar museum store remains open under current COVID-19 guidelines.

Whether you pick up an orca plushie, buy a museum membership, or plan a visit to The Whale Museum you’re supporting far more than a learning institution. You’re also supporting the 74 (as of Sept. 2020) orcas who cruise these waters, gracing us all with their presence.

“By sharing the orcas’ stories, we believe people develop a connection to them, thereby inspiring them to become orca stewards,” said Atkinson.