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Popeye Profile: The Celebrity Seal of San Juan

A seal in the water

Thousands of visitors flock to San Juan Island in Washington every year, and there’s any number of attractions to draw them: the whale watching, fresh seafood, picturesque lavender farms, and variety of local wildlife, for example.

But there’s one attraction that, once discovered, is always a hit: Popeye, a beloved resident harbor seal.

The Official Seal of San Juan Island

Popeye makes her home at Friday Harbor, the more tourist-oriented dock of the San Juan Islands. While harbor seals are a common sight in the area, Popeye stands out. For about 25 years, people have noted this resident for her namesake, a single milky-white blind eye.

Her fans started piecing together her story with each sighting. Only after years of repeat visits from the seal was it discovered that Popeye was a she, as she started bringing her pups to the area. By 2005, her fame had grown enough that the Port of Friday Harbor named her their “official seal,” as commemorated by a life-size statue of her in a local park.

A “Local Legend”

While Popeye’s blind eye makes her distinctive, this same feature could make hunting difficult. So, it doesn’t seem odd that she’s docked herself in the waters by Friday Harbor Seafood market and the scraps the fishers throw into the water.

Her unique situation is part of what endears Popeye to the area, according to a frequent visitor.

“Especially in a place with a resident pod of killer orcas and several international pods that migrate through,” notes Claire Owens, “she’s been able to survive a lot because of the help of Friday Harbor’s residents, so they feel very proud of that.” While not a local herself, Owens has been visiting her resident grandparents at San Juan Island yearly since she was a teenager. She’s a big fan of Popeye and has seen the celebrity seal on every trip since the first.

Owens’s grandparents took her family out specifically to try to see Popeye when she first came, Owens recalls—and it didn’t take much trying, since the seal is normally there when they visit. While she may not be a well-known stop for those who haven’t been to the island before, many visitors will see her while they’re out along the docks and become fans.

In Owens’s experience, even if she and her family weren’t out looking for Popeye, “we’d see her if we were playing on the dock sometimes; she’d come up and peek at us. She’s super curious!”

A boy poses on a statue of a seal

Protecting Popeye

Part of why Popeye is so eager to pop up is that locals have, over many years, taken to tossing her fish from the bait shop. She sees people, and she expects some food.

Though feeding Popeye has been an established activity through the years, many don’t know that it’s actually illegal by federal law to feed the marine life.

Popeye gained some infamy in 2017 after biting a fisher while he was sitting in his boat one day, possibly mistaking his arm for food. Since then, there has been a bigger push for proper care of and respect for marine life.

This emphasis is reflected on San Juan’s tourism site: “Popeye the harbor seal is a beloved member of the Friday Harbor community. However, marine mammals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. Feeding, touching, or harassing them is illegal and may result in fines up to $10,000 per infraction. The best chance for these animals to survive and thrive is to find their own food and not associate food with people. Please help us protect Popeye and other marine mammals in our ecosystem!”

Popeye may be set in her ways, but local authorities encourage visitors to enjoy the seal’s cute, round figure from a distance. While she’s a fan favorite, authorities and environmentalists hope that this habit of human reliance doesn’t get passed onto future generations of seals.

Familiar Faces

In the end, it’s Popeye’s constancy that has earned her a place in the heart of all those who frequent the island. “I recognize her and, in a way, I know she recognizes that I know her,” remarked Owens. “She can’t distinguish [between] us, but she seems to know when we’re familiar with her and when we’re tourists.”

While there is something special about having a unique connection with an animal in nature, Popeye loves to say hi to tourists and regulars alike. Though it may be best to keep fishy treats at bay, if you ever get a chance to visit, keep an eye out for Popeye as you enjoy the rest of the natural beauty of the area!

Brooke James