San Juan Whale Lookout
San Juan Islands

The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, Washington State

Recent news of whale shows gone horribly wrong may lead some families to avoid live sea shows. San Juan Island’s The Whale Museum, a respectful facility focused on mammal life in the Puget Sound, offers a solid alternative for inquisitive kids.

Located on Washington State’s Friday Harbor, the 1,200-square-foot Whale Museum offers car-sized whale skeletons suspended in mid-air, seemingly just to wow little ones. Jarred whale brains and a nauseatingly long intestinal worm (jarred!) garner an ew yuck awesome reaction from bigger kids.

Children can listen in on distinctive whistles and blurts in a “whale telephone booth,” and look for orcas in a mock research lab. The children’s room encourages kids to don orca flippers, watch entertaining documentaries, read whale-riffic books or color pictures.

In the gift shop, look for the orca hats. We picked one up last year — since then, it’s been a mainstay of my preschooler’s wardrobe. He loves the compliments when he wears the tail-shaped hat, plus the opportunity to tell strangers the startling fact that orcas and killer whales are two different names for the same animal. Sort of like Mom and Lora: Two names, same animal.

Winter’s best for getting a good hotel rate on the tourist-popular San Juan Island, but summer is excellent for spotting orcas from Lime Kiln State Park (a 20-minute drive away from Friday Harbor), because that’s when the whales frolic in the waters.

Lime Kiln is the first U.S. park dedicated to whale watching, and hosts more than 200,000 visitors a year. Lime Kiln’s decommissioned lighthouse looks out over the Puget Sound, making it a perfect vantage point. Inside the lighthouse, researchers conduct acoustic and behavioral studies on orcas, minke whales and Dall’s porpoises.

Even if you don’t catch a glimpse of a sleek black-and-white shape, kids can count boats as the sun melts into the Salish Sea. And you can let them tell you again that orcas and killer whales are the same animal (don’t forget to act surprised).

Best for: Toddlers who like to dress up like orcas; preschoolers fascinated by whales; big kids who can read the museum’s descriptive posters and signs. In short, everyone.

Where: 62 First St. N., Friday Harbor. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Cost: $6 adults, $3 for children 5-18.

Friday Harbor Family Vacation

Lora Shinn writes about family travel, Pacific NW travel, grown-up travel...and travel in general. Her travel-related articles and essays have appeared in Family Fun, Parenting, AFAR, National Geographic Traveler, AAA magazines and Redbook, among others.