A Brief History of The Whale Museum...

The Whale Museum's mission is to promote stewardship of whales and the Salish Sea ecosystem through education and research. The Whale Museum is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Our Tax ID is 91-1007501.

In 1976, The Whale Museum* was founded to study the Southern Resident orcas. During the process, it was decided to create a museum to share research results with the general public.  The first step was to find a building: space was rented on the second floor of the historic Odd Fellows Hall (built in 1892) in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island (Washington state), for a mere $75 a month. Decades later, the museum is still in the same location, but now occupies the entire building.

For the next several months hundreds of volunteers worked miracles to refurbish the building and create exhibits for a grand opening during the summer of 1979. Ambitious museum workers and volunteers kept busy, and the early days of The Whale Museum fostered a series of projects and studies, including:

  • A Minke whale study in the Salish Sea by the late Eleanor Dorsey of the New York Zoological Society.
  • An acoustics study of whale sounds.
  • A college-accredited course on Cetology called Whale School.

*The Whale Museum was founded in 1976 as the Moclips Cetological Society.  In 1992, the name was officially changed to The Whale Museum and registered with the Washington's Secretary of State. At that time, Moclips Cetological Society ceased to exist as an organization. In 2014, the old name was registered by a new group. The Whale Museum has no affiliation with the current/new Moclips Cetological Society.

A Focus On Research & Education

In 1981 the board of directors agreed that The Whale Museum should focus on education and supporting research, although it was important that the Orca Survey continued. That year, the Center for Whale Research was separately formed, where the important work of the Orca Survey continues to this day.

In 1983, Lime Kiln State Park, also known as "whale watch park", was created on the west side of San Juan Island. The Whale Museum acquired the lease from the Coast Guard for the Lime Kiln Point lighthouse, which was set up as a shore-based research lab for acoustic and behavioral studies on Orca, Minke and Dall's Porpoise. It is still used by The Whale Museum researchers today.

The acquisition of the lighthouse led to efforts by The Whale Museum and the State of Washington to create the first park in the United States dedicated to whale watching. Today, Lime Kiln State Park hosts more than 200,000 visitors each year.

In a 1984 press conference with the Washington Secretary of State, The Whale Museum announced the beginning of the awareness-creating, fundraising Orca Adoption Program. They also announced a then-pending congressional bill banning the capture of Orcas for display. The bill eventually passed! And the Orca Adoption Program remains popular today, continuing to connect people with individual members of the Southern Resident Community of orcas.

National fame was soon to follow in 1986 when The Whale Museum led an effort to free 130 marine mammals that had been trapped by a fast-moving glacier in Southeast Alaska. Also that summer, The Whale Museum received federal approval to become an official stranding response center in the San Juan Islands, after five years of operating the Marine Mammal Stranding Network. We continue to enjoy this role today.

Continuing Our Mission...

In 1989, the The Whale Museum board bought the Odd Fellows Hall (an historic building in the Town of Friday Harbor, constructed in 1892). The purchase allowed the exhibit space to double in size! In 1992 we introduced supervised, educational "pajama parties" for children called Pod Nods, adding to our mission of education. The Pod Nods program still exists today.

During the summer of 1993, the on-the-water Soundwatch Boater Education Program was launched with the purpose of teaching pleasure boaters the least intrusive way to watch whales from a boat. The program continues today and has become one of our most noted endeavors.

The first Marine Naturalist Training course was taught in 1994, where students learned about the marine ecosystem in a series of classes and field trips. The program continues today, typically offered twice each year.

Late in 1996, the ongoing Gray Whale Project began for students. After a dead gray whale stranded, The Whale Museum staff cleaned and prepared the bones after several months of decomposition. Now, through the Gray Whale Project, students articulate the skeleton while learning more about gray whales and marine ecology.

In 2000, the SeaSound Remote Sensing Network was established to begin underwater acoustic studies of Orca vocalizations, thanks to our largest grant ever. The program continues to further researchers' understanding of underwater acoustics.

In 2006, continuing education workshops (Gear Up and Gear Down) were implemented for professional naturalists. In 2009, SSAMN (the Salish Sea Association of Marine Naturalists) was formed.

In 2009, the "Southern Resident Killer Whale Transboundary Naturalist Workshop" was held at Fort Worden. It was designed as an open conversation between scientists, researchers and policy makers with naturalists, boat operators, guides, and educators who interact with the public

In 2012, Sooke (L-112) washed ashore near Long Beach, Washington. The Whale Museum requested and was honored to receive her skeleton. After completing its role in the necropsy investigation, the museum cleaned & articulated her skeleton for display in an new accessible exhibit area. A full-scale model which is an exact replica of Sooke is displayed above the skeleton. The exhibit opened to the public in February of 2013.

In 2020, a livestreaming webcam was added to the Research Station in the lighthouse at Lime Kiln Point State Park.  It streams on the museum's YouTube channel.

There's More To Be Done...

One of The Whale Museum's most important efforts has been to get more protection for the Southern Resident Orcas. Data that is collected, compiled and archived by The Whale Museum has been used in several government studies to determine if the Orcas should receive federal protection. The Southern Resident orcas are listed as an endangered species in the United States and a species at-risk in Canada.

Greater awareness of the threats facing the Orcas has contributed to funding for Soundwatch and our Whale Hotline from the federal government, as well as increased international cooperation on whale watching. In partnership with the Canadian Straitwatch Project, and both U.S. and Canadian federal governments, the "Be Whale Wise" campaign was launched. There are now vessel regulations (federal and state of Washington) in the inland waters of the United States. The Kayakers Code of Conduct was developed in partnership with the San Juan Island Kayak Association and San Juan County Parks.

We're always expanding and diversifying our Education Programs. In addition to a substantial increase in group tours visiting The Whale Museum, interest is in our marine stewardship programs and efforts. To grow this aspect, it would be ideal to have a designated teaching center close by the museum for school groups, Roads scholars, and other programs.

The museum is fortunate to have a wonderful building within walking distance of the mainland (just park your car and ride the ferry!). This is a historic building that needs love and attention. A goal at the top of our list is to increase accessibility by installing an elevator.

We do live in the heart of the Salish Sea! The Whale Museum is a non-profit organization that is much more than a museum. We run programs wherever there is interest in learning more about being better stewards for the benefit of whales in the wild! 

Meet Our Board Of Directors

  • Rich Osborne (President)
  • Dante Aubert (Vice President)
  • Nancy Heacox (Treasurer)
  • Shelley Alan (Secretary)
  • Mike Aiello (Director-at-Large)
  • Frank Cregor (Director-at-Large)
  • Jeanne Sleeper (Director-at-Large)

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