We glided into a slip at the far end of the Friday Harbor marina, taking note of the many tiny jellyfish and floating sea life surrounding the docks. Overlooking the harbor is a small park with a gazebo and fountain, and a huge totem structure representing the native ties to the Salish sea. After a couple days in the more remote islands, arriving at San Juan felt like rejoining civilization. We looked forward to the prospect of sampling the ice cream flavors and taking a hot shower in the comfortable marina facilities.
Beyond the marina, Friday Harbor feels like a tourist town, filled with souvenir shops and expensive cafes and eateries. We stopped in a few local businesses, including the pharmacy.
We learned that living on the islands is expensive. This reminded me of something David had said back on Shaw Island: “If you live on the islands, you either have three jobs or three houses.” The isolation and scenic seaside views appeal to many, so much that a number of celebrities own vacation homes in the area. He mentioned that Bill Gates owns some land on Shaw, and the cashier at the Friday Harbor pharmacy told us that she’d seen Chris Pratt and Anna Faris in the last week, visiting their island property for the Fourth of July holiday. She told us that one of the pharmacy’s longtime employees remembers when John Wayne visited the island long ago.
But the islands aren’t just for the rich and famous. San Juan is a destination for those seeking to learn more about the wildlife and famous resident orca pods that frequent the waters nearby. Downtown Friday Harbor houses a small but very fun Whale Museum. The two-floor building boasts a couple of full-size whale and porpoise skeletons, as well as many native artifacts, including clothing and items made from seal fur and other animal parts. Each admission card for the museum is printed with the bio of a different resident whale — my card featured Cappuccino, a K-pod male, but I was jealous because someone else in my group got a card for a K-pod female named Spock! The second floor of the museum contains a large genealogy chart, which breaks down the relationships in the resident pods (J, K, and L) and explains the matriarchal structure of whale culture and behavior. An entire back room is set up as a
“recording booth” filled with cassette tapes, where visitors can listen to the sounds of different pods and individual whales that have been recorded over the years.
The island is one of the largest in the archipelago, but a shuttle bus service makes it easy to get from one end to the other, a ticket that comes with some local commentary and hokey jokes from the bus driver.
Eager to catch a glimpse of orcas, we hopped the bus to Lime Kiln Point State Park, which is home to a tiny and picturesque lighthouse seated on a rocky cliff. This building serves as the whale watching center – resident pods often pass through the gap between San Juan and the Canadian coast seeking the salmon that makes up the better part of their diet.
We talked to a whale watching volunteer inside. During the rest of the year, she’s a teacher at a school on the east coast. But each summer, she flies out to San Juan to help collect data for the whale watching center.
This year, it isn’t looking good, she said. Whale activity is abnormally low – although she was quick to add that the data is only collected between certain hours on certain days, meaning that the movement of some whales is unrecorded. Even so, she said there is a drastic change between last year and this year, with fewer and smaller pods passing through. She explained that the dams on the Snake River have had a devastating impact on Chinook salmon populations. The fish are unable to swim upriver to spawn, which means fewer salmon, a major food source for orcas. As a result, whale families have had to search farther and break into smaller pods to find enough food to sustain them. Whale sightings have become more infrequent as a result, although we learned that part of J-pod had passed through the previous day, and a second group was expected sometime that afternoon. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time to wait around to see; those who were with me caught the bus back to Friday Harbor, but I bought myself another 50 minutes to explore the park by opting to catch the following bus.
I hiked to the kiln, which was used for more than 60 years to convert limestone into lime, used mainly in plaster and mortar for building construction. I passed by the kiln, to where the state park transitions into property owned by the Land Bank. Beyond, there was a second, more dilapidated kiln, and more stone ruins (I had to pause for breath; there was a lot of uphill!) But the weather was sublime — just enough sun, and just enough breeze. I followed some noisy tourists down the stairs to explore the ground level of the kiln, and though their chattering was a bit annoying, they alerted me to the presence of what they at first thought were a couple of seals on a rocky slope near the water. It was a bit bright to tell, but my photo later showed that it was actually a pair of river otters that were clambering ashore.
That was about all the time I had left in the park, so I ambled back to the bus stop where I met with a few other members of my group. We rode back to Friday Harbor together, admiring the view. I arrived back just in time to meet with the group who were hiking to Friday Harbor Laboratories, an oceanographic research center run by the University of Washington. The laboratory was a large campus of long, low buildings, visible from the marina where we were moored, but we hiked the long route along the point, so everyone was already tired out by the time we got there.
We met with a woman named Michelle, who was a researcher and caretaker there. She led us out to a rocky, lichen-covered bluff overlooking the bay, where we sat and listened as she
explained the history and purpose of the labs. However, the information may have been a bit too heavy in technical details for all of our group members, with our diverse specialities, to fully comprehend. She took us for a tour of the laboratories, showing us a variety of tanks and apparatus designed to learn the finer biological details of the varied creatures that can be found in the waters nearby. Perhaps most interesting in the lab’s history is the fact that it is where Dr. Osamu Shimomura, a marine biologist, isolated the glowing green fluorescent protein during his study of the bioluminescent creatures found in the San Juan Islands. Several organisms emit a glowing greenish light when disturbed by movement, and the phenomenon can be observed on dark nights in many of the bays around the archipelago. Michelle said that kayaking at night in the bays can sometimes feel like being in a scene from James Cameron’s “Avatar.” Shimomura’s curiosity about the phenomenon led to a breakthrough in chemistry that later won him a Nobel Prize.
We hiked back into the harbor just in time to hear the end of a live music set from the nearby park, had dinner aboard the boats and then walked into town for some after-dinner ice cream. One of the shops on the waterfront has an overstimulating variety of flavors — I opted for a honey lavender, in honor of the large lavender farm on the island that I hadn’t had time to visit that day.
We thought we might stick around for the morning farmer’s market, but it opened at 10 a.m., which was a little late for our fast-paced taste. We decided instead to get an early start toward Sucia Island, home to hundreds of tide pools filled with fascinating creatures.
Post Script: In my journal, I noted that I forgot to mention the extremely entertaining marine life in Friday Harbor. The marine lights lit up the area just perfectly enough to illuminate the show going on beneath the surface. Several varieties of beautiful jellyfish such as moon and friend egg were visible, as well as leggy shrimp, tiny schools of silver fish, and the occasional wormy lamprey. And seals, of course. One night I thought I saw the shadow of an enormous fish approach, only feet away, when suddenly a loud, snort-like exhale made me realize a seal had just stuck its head out of the water to get a better look at me. Connor and Sam said that some families had paid a woman near the base of the dock for a handful of fish, which could be fed to “Popeye,” a one-eyed seal that lived under the dock and would splash the water with his flipper when you clapped.