Friday Harbor’s unlikely local celebrity: a harbor seal named Popeye

She’s been immortalized in a statue, inspired stuffed toys made in her likeness and drawn visitors from all over the country.

San Juan Island’s unlikely local celebrity is a harbor seal named Popeye who’s made the Friday Harbor Marina her home for an estimated 15 years. Boaters staying at the marina are likely to see Popeye swimming up to her fans on the docks, hanging around the floating Friday Harbor Seafood market looking for fish scraps or occasionally, swimming around with her pup.

Got fish? Popeye approaches some kids on the docks at Friday Harbor Marina.

Popeye — so named for her blind, milky left eye — is a beloved fixture known both locally and nationwide, says Harbormaster Tami Hayes.

“The amount of people that come to see her is unbelievable,” Hayes says. “People come and ask for her by name. They’re from Iowa, they’re from Texas … they say, ‘Oh, we came to see Popeye. Where’s Popeye?’”

Popeye knows her name and has a tendency to playfully splash people on the docks, Hayes says.

“She’s as tame as a marine mammal could be,” she says. “She’s very special. She’s as much a part of the marina community as the staff and the people who live down here and work down here. It will be very devastating to all of us when she’s no longer around.”

As Hayes tells it, Popeye began frequenting the marina some 15 years ago, after happening upon a crabber who was throwing his leftover crab parts off the dock. Realizing there was good eating to be had, she stuck around. And ate. Abundantly.

On our recent trip to Friday Harbor, we ran into a powerboater who said he visits the marina about four times a year and each time drops about $100 at the local hardware store on bait he feeds to Popeye. Over at Friday Harbor Seafood on the marina’s main dock, owner Brenda Wagner said Popeye — whose rubenesque physique suggests she doesn’t miss many meals — often stops by in search of treats.

The fact that Popeye has stuck around the marina so long is no surprise, said Amy Traxler, assistant research curator at The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor.

“They’re very opportunistic feeders,” Traxler says of harbor seals, who feed on about35 different species of fish in the San Juan Islands, from herring to salmon.

“When they latch onto a good situation, it’s hard to get them away from that.”

Popeye is a fixture at Friday Harbor Marina and can often be seen swimming through its waters.

Feeding marine mammals of any type is prohibited under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, passed in 1972. But Traxler said employees of The Whale Museum, which is the first responder to marine mammal strandings in San Juan County, ignore the infractions when it comes to Popeye.

“She’s been fed here for so long that we just kind of close our eyes to it,” Traxler says.

So beloved is Popeye that the Port of Friday Harbor named her the port’s official seal and in 2005, commissioned a life-sized granite sculpture of her. Funded by the port and a Seattle area foundation, the statue depicts Popeye with her recognizable white left eye and is displayed in Fairweather Park next to the marina.

Traxler runs the Whale Museum’s stranding program and recalls an incident two years ago, when she got a call about a harbor seal pup stranded on a small beach next to Downriggers restaurant, just south of the marina. Traxler took the pup to a wildlife rehabilitation center on the island.

By the time she got back to her office about an hour later, she had three voicemail messages about Popeye. One was from a reporter at the local paper, who’d heard that someone had gone down to the waterfront and stolen Popeye’s pup.

“People look out for her,” Traxler says. “She’s like a little local icon.”

She’s also a mother who’s had several babies over the years. The most recent was born last spring and named Sweet Pea by locals. Wagner says Popeye showed up at the fish market one day, pup in tow.

“She brought the baby here for all of us to see,” she says. “She likes people.”

But as familiar as Popeye is to people in Friday Harbor, she’s also a bit of a mystery. No one seems to know how old she is, what happened to her eye or where she keeps her babies when she’s not swimming around with them. Harbor seal pups are often left on shoreside rocks while their mothers hunt for food — but not Popeye’s, Traxler says.

A sculpture of Popeye, made by Friday Harbor artist Matthew Gray Palmer, sits in the park beside the marina.

“A lot of times in the summer she’s swimming around by herself and no one can figure out where she’s stashing her pups,” she says. “She must have a really good hiding place, because I’ve asked several people over the years and no one knows.”

There have been reports about a seal named Popeye who’s blind in one eye hanging around Fisherman’s Wharf in Victoria, B.C. – which has, incidentally, fishing vessels, a couple of restaurants and a fish shop. Could that be Friday Harbor’s Popeye, migrating back and forth from one seafood smorgasbord to another? Traxler says she’d like to ask someone at Fisherman’s Wharf to track when Popeye shows up there and see if there’s any overlap.

There could well be another Popeye in Victoria, given the increased numbers of harbor seals and related species since the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed. Harbor seals’ foraging range, which 15 years ago didn’t extend past the south end of Vancouver Island, now goes as far north as southeast Alaska. There are now about 4,000 harbor seals living among the San Juans Islands, Traxler says, which is about as many as the environment can sustain.

With so many harbor seals in the San Juans, some may wonder why more haven’t horned in on Popeye’s territory. Traxler offers an explanation.

“She’s really territorial,” Traxler says. “I’ve heard that she chases the other seals away.”

4 Responses to Friday Harbor’s unlikely local celebrity: a harbor seal named Popeye

  1. Shelby April 4, 2011 at 11:48 pm #

    We were delighted to meet Popeye this weekend, and to share our leftover bait! We travelled back to Anacortes the following day and met another seal with a larger, more pronounced white eye. She was also very friendly and took fish from us (didn’t know it is unlawful!!) but was a distinctly different seal. Do they have a racket going on? Curious if there is some common malady such seals are prone to that I could see not just one, but two friendly single eyed seals in such a short time.

    • Profile photo of Deborah Bach
      Deborah Bach April 5, 2011 at 3:24 pm #

      Shelby,
      Maybe the one you saw near Anacortes is the same one that’s reportedly been spotted around Fisherman’s Wharf. Do they have a racket going on? It sounds like Friday Harbor’s Popeye indeed has a nice little racket going on. She’s very well-fed, apparently. :)
      I asked the folks at the Whale Museum if harbor seals were prone to some type of eye problem and was told that if they have an eye problem, it’s usually a bulging eye rather than blindness.
      It’s a treat to see Popeye, isn’t it? She puts on quite a show if there’s an audience around.

  2. Scott Boye September 21, 2010 at 7:33 am #

    Most people that frequent the Port of Friday Harbor have a tale to tell about Popeye. Mine occurred while walking the Port docks with a friend that lives aboard. Glen suffered an industrial accident many years ago and now can “count to seven and a half” because of missing fingers. We were walking up the Port docks when we passed a sportfishing boat with several guys that had obviously been imbibing for quite a while. They were teasing Popeye, holding herring just out of reach so she couldn’t get the treats. We watched for a minute, then Glen loudly announced that the seal was a vicious one and held up his hand with missing fingers. The drunks jumped to the middle of the cockpit and tossed their herring overboard. Glen and I could barely stifle our laughter as we hustled up the dock!

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