by Tracie Hornung, Managing Editor
In the late 1960s Ken Balcomb, Camille Goebel, and Rick Chandler created a small organization called the Moclips Cetalogical Society, based in Moclips, Washington, for the purpose of studying whales.
In 1976, the society moved to San Juan Island to study orcas. With a contract from the National Marine Fisheries Service, the organization began the Orca Survey to research the Southern Resident Community of orcas. As a result of this and other studies, the American and Canadian governments agreed to stop live-capture operations. Numerous volunteers, including former director Dr. Richard Osborne, took part in those early studies.
In 1978 Balcomb, as president of the Moclips Cetalogical Society, joined together with fellow whale researcher Mark Anderson to find a building to create a museum about whales. They rented the upstairs of the historic Odd Fellows Hall in Friday Harbor, for $75 a month. The Museum is still there.
For the next several months hundreds of volunteers worked miracles to refurbish the building and create exhibits for a grand opening in the summer of 1979.
Anderson became the first director of the Museum, and a board of directors was established. The Moclips Cetalogical Society retained its board, with its members also sitting on the board of The Whale Museum. In 1981 the two boards merged.
Meanwhile, ambitious Museum workers kept busy. Those early days saw the beginning of 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, and a college-accredited course on cetology called Whale School.
In 1981 the board and Balcomb agreed that the Museum should focus on education and on supporting research, with the Orca Survey continuing with photo-identification. Thus, Balcomb left the Museum and started the Center for Whale Research, where the important work of the Orca Survey continues to this day.
The year 1983 was significant to The Whale Museum as it was the year that Lime Kiln Point State Park--also known as "whale watch park"--was created. Thanks to the support of Secretary of State Ralph Munro for a proposal written by Osborne, and the negotiating skills of then-director Peter Capen, the Moclips Cetological Society acquired the lease from the Coast Guard for the Lime Kiln Point lighthouse. The lighthouse was set up as a shore-based research lab for acoustic and behavioral studies on orcas, minke whales and Dall's porpoises. It's still used by researchers today. The acquisition of the lighthouse led to efforts by the Museum and the state to create the first park in the country dedicated to whale watching. Currently, the park hosts more than 200,000 visitors per year.
The following spring, at a press conference with the Secretary of State, the Museum announced the beginning of the revenue-generating Orca Adoption Program and a then-pending congressional bill banning the capture of orcas for display, which eventually passed.
In the summer of 1986 the Museum became nationally famous when it led efforts to free 130 marine mammals that had been trapped by a fast-moving glacier in Southeast Alaska. Also that summer, after five years of operating the Marine Mammal Stranding Network, the Museum received federal approval to become an official stranding response center in the San Juans--a role the Museum still maintains.
In 1987 The Whale Museum reached a milestone: 30,000 people came to visit!
In 1988, the Museum was awarded a grant from the state to produce a traveling exhibit on "Marine Mammals as Indicators of the Health of Puget Sound." And, under the auspices of the Museum, Osborne teamed up with fellow whale researchers John Calambokidis and the late Eleanor Dorsey to write a book titled "A Guide to Marine Mammals of Greater Puget Sound." Exhibits Curator Albert Shepard contributed to the numerous orca identification illustrations.
In 1989 the 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!
The following year, the Museum co-hosted the Third International Orca Symposium in Victoria, B.C. For the second year in a row, the Museum won a $30,000 general support grant from the Institute for Museum Services, and Executive Director Susan Vernon attended the award ceremony at the White House. The Museum won a third grant from the IMS in 1991.
Adding to its education mission, supervised, educational "pajama parties" for children began in 1992 in a new program called Pod Nods. The program still exists.
June 1993 saw the beginning of what continues to be one of the Museum's most noted endeavors: the on-the-water Soundwatch Boater Education Program. It began with the cooperation of the Massachusetts-based School for Field Studies, with the purpose of teaching pleasure boaters the least intrusive way to watch whales from a boat.
In 1994 the Museum's Orca Adoption Program got a tremendous boost when Warner Bros. added a public service announcement about the program to their popular "Free Willy" video. The Orca Adoption Program reached a record 50,000 adopters!
Another successful program was instituted at the Museum in 1994: the first Marine Naturalist Training Program. Students learned about the marine ecosystem in a series of classes and, after graduation, went on to become docents at the Museum, interpreters at Lime Kiln Point State Park, or guides on commercial whale-watch boats. The program continues, and has been endorsed by the Whale Watch Operators Association Northwest.
In the summer of 1995 the Museum hosted a powerful exhibit about the Exxon Valdez spill called "Darkened Waters: Profiles of an Oil Spill."
Also that year, Museum educators began visiting schools in Puget Sound through the Outbreach Program. The program offers introductory presentations on whales and marine conservation to fifth-graders.
Late in 1996 the ongoing Gray Whale Project for students began. It came about as the result of a dead gray whale that washed up on an island beach. After several months of decomposition, Museum staff cleaned and prepared the bones. Now, in a series of workshops teaching them about marine ecology, students articulate the skeleton.
Also in 1996 The Whale Museum joined the high-tech world when its Web page went online (www.whalemuseum.org).
A surprising event took place that autumn. For the first time in recorded history, members of L Pod spent 30 days in Dyes Inlet, in south Puget Sound. The novelty drew hundreds of boaters and created "media frenzy." Soundwatch personnel were dispatched to help control the crowd. The whales eventually escaped and the episode resulted in an exciting exhibit at the Museum.
A portion of the Museum building's master plan was implemented in 1997 when the store was moved downstairs. Besides increasing the size of the store, the move allowed for the addition of an art gallery on the first floor.
The creation of another, highly acclaimed exhibit at The Whale Museum began in 1999: "Storm Boy," based on the award-winning children's book by Paul Owen Lewis. A major portion of it remains as part of the Mythology exhibit.
In order to begin an underwater acoustic study of orcas' vocalizations, the Museum in 2000 received its largest grant ever. The resulting SeaSound Remote Sensing Network continues today and furthers researchers' understanding of underwater acoustics.
In 2002 the Orca Adoption Program was honored when the Samish Indian Nation took part in naming an orca calf and invited the Museum's board and staff to a traditional naming ceremony for J-37 (Hy'Shqa).
One of the most important highlights of the last five years has been the Museum's efforts to get more protection for the Southern Resident orcas. Data collected, compiled and archived by the Museum has been used in several governmental studies to determine if the orcas should receive federal protection. And greater awareness of the threats facing the orcas has contributed to funding for Soundwatch from the federal government, as well as increased international cooperation on whale watching. Examples are the Museum's partnership with the Canadian Marine Mammal Monitoring Project, and with both U.S. and Canadian federal governments in the cross-border "Be Whale Wise" campaign.
In 2002-2003 Soundwatch also assisted in the monitoring of L-98 (Luna), an orphaned orca in Canada. The Museum played a pivotal role in fundraising for both L-98 and A-73, another orphaned orca, by administering grant and donor funds.
Another significant event occurred in 2003 when the Museum's Marine Mammal Stranding Network responded to a report of a 53-foot-long fin whale carcass in the Salish Sea. Following the necropsy at the University of Washington Friday Harbor Labs, the carcass was sunk and became a project study on decomposition, using an underwater camera mounted to a remote-operated vehicle.
Also over the last five years, the Museum has expanded and diversified the Education Program. Besides a substantial increase in group tours visiting the Museum and the growing popularity of marine stewardship classes, the Outbreach Program conducted educational activities as far away as Texas and California.