Earlier this summer, my best friend Janine and I visited Friday Harbor (you can read about our adventures here) and had the chance to sit down and chat with Jenny Atkinson, the Executive Director of The Whale Museum.

Jenny Atkinson and I at The Whale Museum (Photo Credit: Janine Marie Tobias)

The Whale Museum, established in 1976, first opened to the public in 1979 as the first museum in the country devoted to a species living in the wild. Today, the museum continues to promote stewardship of whales and the Salish Sea ecosystem through education and research, and presents natural history as a living history, not just as a photo opportunity. The museum strives to teach visitors that they are connected to the ecosystem, which is connected throughout the world. It also encourages people to explore these beautiful creatures themselves through activities like whale watching california offers boat trips out to sea where you can observe them in their natural habitat, for example.

The museum is open year round except for two weeks in January. The building itself was built in 1892, originally as an Oddfellows Hall. Today the building stands tall on the skyline of Friday Harbor, adorned with a striking mural of the whales that make the San Juan Islands famous – Orcas. Painted on the back of the building overlooking the harbor, swims Granny (more on Granny later!).

The Whale Museum (Photo Credit: Lesley Haenny)

Student Education

The museum, in partnership with NOAA and the Washington State Ferry, offers orca outreach and education to low-income students who dream of a chance to ride on one of the ferries to the island to learn about orcas. The museum uses this program to teach the students how their actions can affect everything around them, like the ripples from dropping a stone into a pond.

The Pod Nod is a pajama party sleepover for children ages 6 to 11 that connects them to the story of the museum. Supervised by Whale Museum educators, Pod Nods feature games, crafts, science projects, bedtime snacks, bedtime movie, and breakfast.

A group of students learning something new while we were visiting. (Photo Credit: Lesley Haenny)

Adopt an Orca

The Whale Museum offers the opportunity to adopt an orca! The adoption is symbolic and is not one person per whale. It is, however, a wonderful way to learn specifics about a chosen whale in the area’s three resident pods and follow their journey with plenty of information and pictures on your whale of choice. Guests can “adopt” one of the Southern Resident Community killer whales, identified and named through the museum’s Orca Adoption Program. You can adopt an orca at the museum on your visit or click a whale photo here to learn more about it and/or adopt it.

Your adoption comes with a free one-year membership, which entitles you to free admission to The Whale Museum Exhibit Hall and a 10% discount on in-store and on-line merchandise purchases. Adopters receive updates once a month, a photo of their whale, a genealogy chart and biography, patches and bumper stickers. Proceeds from orca adoptions support ongoing education, research and public outreach on behalf of the Southern Resident Community of killer whales.

Screen shot from the Adopt an Orca page from their website. (Photo Credit: The Whale Museum)

Sustainable Seafood Choices

The biggest takeaway we learned from Jenny was being aware of how our choices can affect nature, especially when it comes to making sustainable food choices. For example, Jenny had us imagine how many plastic straws are in dumps and floating in the seas. She spoke of the impact plastics floating in the water had on wildlife. It is not just a visual blight. Many marine mammals will eat it, thinking it is food, and it sits in their stomachs. Some plastics can wrap around their bodies and strangle or drown them. So in a world full of plastics, what can we do? Simple things make all the difference. Think about your purchases – did you know you could use pasta as a straw instead and even linguine as a coffee stirrer? Cut bags, 6-pack rings, and try hard not to use plastic bags at the market. Never leave a circle or ring of plastic intact – cut the loop!

Other ways to help include smart grocery shopping (and entrée choosing) – she suggested checking out the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch (MBSW). The MBSW makes recommendations to help you choose seafood that’s fished or farmed in ways that have less impact on the environment using a red, yellow, green code for quick scans; avoid the reds, eat the greens knowing they are sustainable and watch the yellow list carefully. The Ocean Wise Seafood Program based out of Vancouver, British Columbia, works directly with restaurants, chefs, suppliers and retailers of seafood products to offer sustainable seafood options. Ocean Wise ensures they have the most current scientific information regarding seafood so that they can make ocean-friendly buying decisions. The Ocean Wise symbol on menus or packaging enables consumers to easily identify and choose products that ensure the health of our oceans for generations to come. Both of these programs only provide a tool which is based on human-consumption needs. As stewards, we need to take it one step further and explore whether the ecosystem needs are being met first, before we consume.

These types of programs help out the local orca populations. Transient orcas are doing well in the Pacific Northwest and eat small mammals. Southern resident orcas, the most studied population of orcas in the Northwest, are endangered and eat fish, but mostly salmon – and with less salmon in the waters, the less food the resident orcas are able to eat. As humans, we aren’t typically finding seals and other small ocean mammals on our dinner plates, but we certainly find salmon and other fish at the table and this in turn, does affect orca populations.

L-8 (aka Moclips) was a male orca first photographed in 1970 when 80 orcas were rounded up by Sea World, Inc. off Whidbey Island, WA. Fortunately, he was set free but passed away 7 years later. (Photo Credit: Lesley Haenny)

Orca and Marine Life Programs

  • Marine Mammal Stranding Network: Operates under the auspices of the National Marine Fisheries Service through a Stranding Agreement which allows responders to investigate, collect data and potentially handle live and dead marine mammals. Dead animals in fresh condition are studied through necropsies (animal autopsies) conducted at the University of Washington Friday Harbor Labs by scientists from The Whale Museum and the SeaDoc Society.
  • Soundwatch Boater Education Program: The mission of Soundwatch is to prevent vessel disturbance to killer whales and other marine wildlife in the Central Salish Sea, since whale watching means boaters are in the living room of the whales. Soundwatch crew and volunteers are on the water every day during the summer educating recreational boaters on the least intrusive ways to watch whales in the wild and monitoring all vessel activity near the whales. Soundwatch also monitors regional marine protected areas and opportunistically collects data on vessel and whale behavior.
  • Lime Kiln Hydrophone: The Salish Sea Hydrophone Network consists of a series of underwater microphones (hydrophones) throughout the Salish Sea, and is an experimentation in sharing real-time underwater sounds in order to characterize the soundscape. The hydrophone node at Lime Kiln State Park is located just southwest of the Lighthouse in about 7 meters of water. The stereo streaming system is maintained through a partnership between The Whale Museum and SMRU, led by Dr. Jason Wood. The goal of this network is to detect Orca sounds and measure ambient noise levels present in the habitat of the endangered Southern Resident orcas.
It is fascinating listening to orca sounds! (Photo Credit: Lesley Haenny)

Orca Facts and Stories

  • When a mother orca dies, often times her adult son will die a few days later. In some cases, the adult son will find another matriarch to adopt him.
  • Female orcas go through menopause. Granny, one of the prior mentioned Southern Resident orcas in the Pacific Northwest, was estimated to be 80-100 years old before she passed away. She was presumed to be post-menopausal when she was first seen in the 1970’s.
  • Orca pods have their own dialects but share a common language as a community. The J, K and L pods in the Puget Sound have the same acoustics and can understand each other.
  • Resident and transient orcas do not breed with each other and northern residents do not mix with southern residents.
  • Orcas are specialists! Pods will pass all other food choices and stick with what they eat (i.e., the Southern residents will only eat fish while transient orcas will only eat marine mammals).
  • Lolita (local name is Tokitae) was an orca captured from the L-Pod and is in captivity in Miami, Florida. The Orca Network is working to get her out of captivity as the pool is not big enough for her. She still speaks the language of her pod, which is endangered.
  • The three threats to whales are underwater noise, surface impacts and toxic exposure (for example, L-Pod whales have a high DDT signature from pesticide ingestion).
Learn stories about whales like K-40 (aka Raggedy), who was one of the first whales to receive a common name. (Photo Credit: Lesley Haenny)

Plan your trip to Friday Harbor now and visit The Whale Museum!

The Whale Museum
62 1st St
Friday Harbor, WA 98250
Ph: (360) 378-4710




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