Originally from Massachusetts, Sarah McCullagh grew up loving wildlife – especially orcas. Yet, it wasn’t until 2014 that orcas became her primary focus.

Fresh out of college, with a bachelor’s in wildlife and Conservation Biology from the University of New Hampshire, Sarah arrived in Friday Harbor. She went straight to work. A mere hours after stepping foot in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island she hopped aboard ‘Sea Lion,’ one of San Juan Safaris’ whale watching and wildlife vessels.

That first day she watched an orca’s glossy back break the surface tension and heard that powerful exhalation, “KWOOF”. The sound instantly became one of her favorites and she’s called the idyllic port in the Salish Sea home ever since.

Today, she is the Lead Naturalist, Vessel Coordinator, and Captain at San Juan Safaris. To find out a little more about this amazing woman and why she often spends more time on the water land, I flew to Friday Harbor. Between office chores and tour prep, she took a mid-day break and shared a bit of her story.

Whales in the San Juans 

Q: When did you develop your passion for whales?

Sara: I watched Free Willy when I was three-years-old and knew that’s what I wanted. For probably three years after that, I told my mom I wanted to grow up to be a whale. Then I realized as a six-year-old that being a whale wasn’t a real possibility. From that time on I thought about how to get close to whales.

I considered SeaWorld for a bit, but it didn’t really fit what I wanted. It’s always been animals for me, but whales have just been this passion throughout my life. That’s really what drew me here.

San Juan Coast

Q: How does your degree influence your role at San Juan Safaris?

Sara: Typically, the marine world and the terrestrial world don’t really cross that much. This is especially true once you get down the path of terrestrial biology, which is really what my nitty gritty degree is in. I spent time with black bears and bobcats when I was in school. I tried to take as much oceanography as I possibly could.

The degree really prepared me for this job in a unique way. The conservation biology side of it is directed towards spreading educational messages. It’s really the process of looking at our biological systems, breaking it down in a scientific way, and then disseminating that information so it’s easy to understand.

Humpback Whale

Q: You’ve made a lot of updates in the last year to the tour. Can you tell me a little about what those are?

Sara: We’ve totally changed our program. Over the last year or so, we’ve made some pretty big changes to incorporate more visual aids and tactile stuff for people. We’re trying to reach as many possible learning styles as we can.

We have iPads on the boat now, which enables us to update our ID catalogs and keep them safe. Also, we have a Junior Naturalist Handbook now, that I worked on with Brian’s wife. (Brian owns San Juan Safaris.)

Kiddos on the boat each get one of these when they get on the boat. And it’s totally tailored to the area and our boat specifically. The idea was to make sure that we’re not only reaching kids while they are on the boat, but if they can take this with them and have it a physical reminder, it helps them remember and revisit what they learned.

Wildlife Spotting 

During the tour, the onboard naturalists also update a map to mark each sighting. It delivers an incredibly fun and interactive way for passengers to follow along. On a recent trip with San Juan Safaris, we saw a wide variety of wildlife, including: seals, porpoise, orcas, humpback whales, bald eagles.

Q: What’s your favorite time to be on the water?

Sara: In the evening at sunset. The whales aren’t more active, but it’s just stunning. In the summer we run sunset cruises and those are beautiful.

Q: You recently added a new title to your job description? Can you tell me a little about that?

Sara: This summer I’m really excited to start driving. Over the winter I earned my Captain’s license. I’m kind of mind blown about that still and I’m really excited about it. I’ll probably drive Sea Hawk mostly, out of Roche Harbor.


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