Lots of people have lots of great ideas. But only a few turn their perceptive concepts into reality. The visionary-to-reality folks are the ones to follow. The Center for Whale Research’s Founder and Senior Scientist, Ken Balcomb, is one of these. Opening the ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center in Friday Harbor in 2018 is yet another example of why he’s THE person to pay attention to . . . if the Southern Resident orcas are to have any chance at long-term survival.
Photographs © Copyright 2018-2021 Center for Whale Research.
CWR’s Ken Balcomb working on scaffolding outside the entrance to the
ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center in Friday Harbor, San Juan Island
On an unusually wintery day in late February 2018, Ken Balcomb trudged through snow past a second-hand store on the south side of First Street. Glancing in the window, he saw the reflection of a red and white FOR RENT sign on one of the interior walls.
“Huh. This place is available,” Ken remembered thinking, followed by: “Good location.” The building was only a block from the main drag, Spring Street; it was next door to the Hungry Clam restaurant, and it was a stone’s throw from the Friday Harbor Ferry Terminal. Thinking like a commercial realtor: street-level entrance, massive front window, lots of parking. “It’s the perfect location!”
In February 2018, a red and while FOR RENT sign was posted among merchandise for sale in the second-hand store occupying 185 South 1st Street, Friday Harbor
(now CWR’s ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center).
He ventured inside to ask the guy behind the counter for the rental details. All the person could offer was that he was moving out in three days; he advised Ken to ring the phone number on the FOR RENT sign for particulars about a lease.
Thankfully, three days turned into ten, giving Ken time to reach the building’s owner and negotiate a lease for the as-yet-unnamed venture. With assistance from CWR’s volunteer Community Relations Coordinator, Lodie Gilbert Budwill (also Ken’s right-hand person), they helped the elderly “collectibles” shop owner pack up and move out. Lending a hand to a cause was and is typical of Ken and Lodie.
By March 3, the First Street space was vacant, the hardwood floor swept. Ken was ready to build his vision, addressing what he saw as a gap for effective public outreach. Using shelving left behind by the previous operator, he fashioned a floor plan based on his inspiration for the final staged interior: where the large-screen video monitor, Orca Skull, wood-carved J1 dorsal fin, and computer stations would be positioned; where the wall shelves for merchandising books and t-shirts and caps would be built; where the partition for the storage area would go.
His most pressing need? A carpenter. As luck would have it, a carpenter friend and wooden boat builder, Les Kempton, was available. “An amazing craftsman,” Ken says of Kempton. “We couldn’t have done better if we’d had Michelangelo come and work on the place. The work he did was phenomenal.”
CWR’s Community Relations Coordinator, Lodie Gilbert Budwill, giving the thumbs up
to the progress being made in the interior of
CWR’s ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center (March 2018).
In the course of a few weeks, Les, Ken, and Lodie put it all together. Next, part-time CWR staffer and long-time San Juan Island orca naturalist, Katie Jones, was named the project’s day-to-day operations manager.
“The amount of support in the [San Juan Island] community was and continues to be just amazing,” Ken said proudly. Katie and Lodie nodded in agreement.
The team behind the forthcoming CWR orca learning center was clear on the reason for their new undertaking. “The idea was this: We know enough from the research that’s been done on the Southern Residents [orcas] that it’s long past the time to act,” Ken said. He then stressed: “We gotta do more if they’re going to have any chance of surviving.“
“We know enough from the research that’s been done on the Southern Residents [orcas] that it’s long past the time to act.“
Ken believed then and still does that this goal can be achieved through public education and motivation. Knowledgeable citizens developing a love for the Resident orcas will speak out to support their basic needs to avoid extinction. This mass of people will then pressure their regional and federal officials to make policy choices to benefit J19, J56, K43, K16, L83, L125, and all the other Southern Resident orca community members.
Southern Resident orca community members J46 and J53 in Haro Strait during
Back in 2018, Ken and crew, as yet, hadn’t named their new storefront outreach and education initiative. “We struggled to think of the right name,” he said. “I joked, because we’re next door to the Hungry Clam, that we should call our place The Hungry Whale! Lodie and Katie didn’t take my idea seriously. Although, they did laugh.”
With no official name, CWR staff and volunteers referred to the place by the name of their choosing. Usually, their descriptor included either the word outreach or education. Sometimes both.
“Using these words along with others was a mouthful,” Ken announced at the time. “I’m going to call it the Oooo! . . . The acronym for Orcinus orca outreach office.”
Clever. And amusing. Ken gets a laugh every time he tells the story. A well-kept secret: he still calls it the Oooo! when talking with Lodie, Katie, and others in the CWR organization.
ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center Manager, Katie Jones, and Ken Balcomb celebrating the near completion of the Oooo! (March 2018).
Following much debate, the CWR group settled on a name: ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center. ORCA SURVEY pays tribute to the organizations’ five-decade-long study of the Southern Resident orcas, which continues today. And Outreach & Education Center clearly articulates what the operation does. It is a mouthful, but clarity was the main naming priority.
ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center . . . Oooo! . . . OSC . . . whatever you call it; it’s been a hit from opening day on August 21, 2018. Sadly, COVID closed the doors for 14 months during the past three years. Still, 15,000 people have toured the Center, learning from the knowledgeable CWR staff and volunteers about the fascinating lives of the Salish Sea orcas. Learning how to identify individual whales; distinguishing females and males; learning about orca anatomy, communication methods, feeding patterns, physical behaviors, and more. Katie Jones and her team have welcomed visitors of all ages from across the United States and worldwide. Some have explored the education stations and displays as families; others attended film nights or science talks by guest orca experts. School groups regularly visited, acquiring knowledge and inspiration.
ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center Manager, Katie Jones,
explaining the anatomy of an orca to Oooo! visitors in 2018.
“We’d love it if you’d visit us,” Katie said. Ken and Lodie echoed her sentiments. Ken added, “If you’ve been to the Oooo!, you know how good a job Katie and Lodie and the others are doing. If you haven’t visited, you really should.”
He finished on a stern note: “We have to build a very vocal and active constituency for our electeds, who have to tell the political leaders to get a spine. And do something about the plight of the Southern Residents. We’ve gotta be the ones to push them!”
“If you’ve been to the Oooo!, you know how good a job Katie and Lodie and the others are doing. If you haven’t visited, you really should.”
The ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center (185 South 1st Street, Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, WA) is open to everyone. And it’s FREE!
The front window of the ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center
in Friday Harbor, San Juan Island (July 2021).
ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center Manager, Katie Jones,
giving an Orca Talk to children.
MONDAY Movie Night at the ORCA SURVEY Outreach & Education Center
before the pandemic.