Local Adventures: The Whale Museum at Friday Harbor

The first time I visited The Whale Museum at Friday Harbor, on San Juan Island, I was 13. I was about to enter high school and my parents had a crazy notion to take a trip through the San Juan Islands in Washington State, to Canada and back. It was also my first time to see what lay out in the North – not knowing 2 years later we would move North to the islands.

Your adventure starts early. Really early if you want lots of time to explore the islands. If you walk on the cost isn’t terribly high – and you don’t need reservations, as you do with vehicles. The Washington State Ferry system is easy enough to use, and there are numerous parking lots around the Anacortes dock to leave cars at. Anacortes is on Fidalgo Island, one island over from Whidbey, and is connected to the mainland with a bridge, and is easily accessed by I-5 and Hwy 20. We took the 9’ish ferry, which goes straight to San Juan Island, getting us there a little over an hour later.

It is a smooth ride, with the ferry puttering along gently.

On a blue skied summer day, the water was full of sailboats to yachts, and of course, the other ferries plying the water (in front of Guemes Island).

Your views can depend on what boat you catch. Some are nicer than others. Some are as nearly as old as me, and well…..like 1970’s era cars, they don’t age well. We got one of the newer ferries on the way out and got to enjoy the busy sundeck the whole way. Looking back I could see Mount Rainier in the far distance (though you can barely see it in the photograph, it was hazy).

Looking ahead, Mount Baker was shrouded with clouds. She’s nowhere as tall as Rainier, but when on the water she is massive.

We disembarked off the ferry with the crowds and wandered up into town. Friday Harbor is an interesting place. It is the “tourist town” of the San Juan Islands. The other islands the main town is not at the ferry dock, so cars are needed, or a bike with strong legs. Hence, many tourists head out to Friday Harbor for the day. It has many restaurants, a small grocery store, lots of charming stores to wander through and hotels to stay in – all accessible by foot. There is also an island trolley one can get on and see the island in a loop, stopping at major points. You can get off and get back on. Expect a crush of people and go with the flow.

Our main goal was to visit The Whale Museum, which sits a few blocks up from the ferry dock. Today the museum celebrates its 39th birthday. While the museum isn’t huge, it has so much to see and learn about whales, but also the other animals in the sea, such as porpoises and dolphins, and how it is all connected.

This was a weird display. It is conjoined Harbor Seal twins. They were found in the wild, on a beach (they didn’t survive birth). Twins are rare in Harbor Seals, so it was a huge find.

Alistaire sitting in the belly of the whale.

The boys loved the museum, and were quite happy reading and poking around. It also has an arts and crafts room for kids to enjoy. For children 6 and up, it is worth the visit. Younger children won’t enjoy it overall.

One reason I wanted the boys to visit the museum is to learn more about Tokitae, who many know by “Lolita” the Orca Whale who was taken into captivity at the age of 4 years old. She is now 52 years old. I wanted the boys to understand more about my intense hatred of Miami Seaquarium (and as well Seaworld in Orlando, due to their Orcas), and their abuse of Tokitae. Orcas are amazing to see in the wild – the first time I saw one it mean more to me than seeing my first bear or wolf, it is simply amazing to see them wild.

There is the connection to where she came from. My brother lives on the cove where she was stolen as a child, and her elders were murdered – all so she could be sold for $6,000 in 1970. There isn’t many people in central Whidbey who don’t feel bitter over the history of the whales.

All I can beg you is…..don’t give these places your money. Orcas are not toys to be trained. They are extremely smart (hence why Tokitae has killed “trainers” in the past) and her pool mate killed himself via suicide years ago. It is a horrible existence for a whale that can live to be 100 years old.

If you should ever be in the San Juan Islands, take an hour or two, and learn more about the majestic animals.

The best part of leaving San Juan Island is getting to watch the cars headed to Lopez Island load. After the Anacortes heading cars load, the Lopez ones have to swing wide and back onto the ferry. Yes, it can be pretty hilarious. Backup cameras ruin the fun……..

Lopez Island is a fun one – and well, you never know what you will see on the blog this year. (The ferry goes by the island, then backs into the slip, and the backed in cars are now pointing the correct way – and unload easily).

Because in the end, the ferry ride alone can be plenty enough for many people. It’s relaxing and the views are gorgeous.