| Travel | Family fun

The Whale Museum, San Juan Island

Discover the marine celebrities of the Salish Sea

Few things are more thrilling than seeing an orca whale in the wild, and we are lucky enough to live in a region where that's possible.

Nicknamed "killer whales" even though they are usually gentle around people, orcas weigh from seven to 10 tons and can grow up to 27 feet long, which makes them colossal compared to humans. A good number of these creatures - 86 to be exact - summer in the Salish Sea off the San Juan Islands. Now is the perfect time to plan a trip north to view these striking black-and-white mammals, which arrive in the San Juans in May or June.

Driving to Anacortes and taking the ferry to San Juan Island's Friday Harbor makes an adventurous day trip for Seattleites, but if you're coming from the South Sound area you might want to stay overnight so you have plenty of time to not only see the whales, but also learn a thing or two about them.

When you arrive on San Juan Island, head first to The Whale Museum, located just three blocks up the hill from the Friday Harbor ferry dock. It's the best place to gain some insight into Puget Sound's orca population. With your first step into the museum, you enter the orcas' world through interactive exhibits and displays.

In the corner of one of the rooms, a pay telephone lets kids listen to different marine animal sounds. Dial "1" for orcas. Playing with the acoustics board and using binoculars to identify different types of whales by their dorsal fins are also popular activities for the younger set. Then there's the brain case. Kids can check out the brain comparisons and see how small the human brain is compared to that of the fin whale. Does brain size indicate intelligence? You'll find out at The Whale Museum.

New this year is a bright, fun refurbished kids' room. Children can dress up like an orca or salmon, color marine life pictures, read storybooks and watch films. Another new exhibit measures visitors' heights against the six-foot dorsal fin of a male orca. By the time you visit, the museum may have received a National Geographic film that documents sea life from the point of view of a "critter cam"-wearing orca. Other marine life displays also tantalize youngsters, such as the new display depicting the different ways people have used seal fur for everything from toys to purses.

Guided tours for school groups, Elderhostel groups, the Audubon Society and others are scheduled for spring. If you encounter one of these tours when visiting the museum, you're welcome to listen to the commentary provided by a museum educator. The Whale Museum also offers a program called "Pod Nod," in which a group of children stay overnight in the museum and learn about whales through skits, stories, activities and a midnight flashlight tour.

Before you head out to take your turn at whale watching, check the museum's news board, which tells you the date and time of the latest whale pod sightings. And grab a bottle of Laughing Whale Water, snacks and a book or a map from the museum gift shop.

Museum director Jenny Atkinson suggests stopping at Lime Kiln Point State Park, also known as Whale Watch Park. As you follow the .8-mile shoreline interpretive trail, you may spot whales and other marine mammals in the water, and intertidal creatures along the shore. The whales might be resting, feeding, spy hopping (poking their heads up to look around), breaching (jumping clear of the water), or slapping their tails on the water's surface. The park also offers free guided walks and marine mammal programs from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

If you want to splurge, professional whale-watching tours are a thriving business in the San Juan Islands. To make sure the tour you choose has the whales' best interests in mind, ask if the company belongs to the Whale Watch Operators Association and follows the Be Whale Wise guidelines. These guidelines ask that boaters be cautious and courteous, and not get closer than 100 yards to any whale.

Marine life in the Salish Sea is fragile. Because of global climate changes, pollution and other impacts on the whales' food supply, orcas are showing signs of vulnerability and are declining in numbers. Spend one day or several exploring The Whale Museum and San Juan Island's whale-watching opportunities, and kids will come away with an appreciation for these breathtaking animals and the challenges they face to survive.

Heather Larson is a freelance writer from Tacoma.

  • The Whale Museum
    62 First St. N.
    Friday Harbor, WA
    360-378-4710, 800-946-7227
    Summer hours: Daily, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. (Memorial Day to Labor Day)
    Admission: Adults $6, seniors $5, ages 5-18 $3, children younger than 5 free
    Pod Nod dates: July 6, 13, 20, 27
  • Lime Kiln Point State Park
    1567 Westside Road
    Friday Harbor, WA
    Hours: Daily, 8 a.m.-dusk


  • Western Prince Cruises
    Friday Harbor, WA
    Boats are powered by eco-friendly biodiesel.
  • San Juan Safaris
    Friday Harbor or Roche Harbor, WA


  • Lakedale Resort
    4313 Roche Harbor Road
    Friday Harbor, WA
    360-378-2350, 800-617-2267
    Lodge rooms with a bathroom, TV, fireplace and balcony: $169-$239 Log cabins with two bedrooms, two baths, fully equipped kitchen and grill outside: $239-$329 Campsites: $21-$34, extra charge for more than two people
  • San Juan County Park
    50 San Juan Park Drive
    Friday Harbor, WA
    Reservations: 360-378-1842
    Campsites: $20 for as many as four people, one vehicle

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