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.
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.”
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 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.”