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A whale of a time at OMSI’s new orca exhibit

Salish Sea’s Southern Residents star at Portland science museum

Where can you experience the thrill of standing nose-to-nose with a life-size orca without the guilt? Hint: it’s not SeaWorld.

The new orca special exhibition at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry was just the place to take my orca-obsessed kid. “Orcas: Our Shared Future” opened May 13 and is on view through Jan. 28, 2024. This traveling exhibit was produced by the Royal BC Museum (you’ll notice some Canadian spellings throughout), and OMSI is its U.S. debut.

For the uninitiated, OMSI is to Portland as the Pacific Science Center is to Seattle. It’s completely worth planning a PDX weekend around the 219,000 square feet of hands-on science exploration alone.

Important to know: OMSI admission is free if you bring proof of your current PacSci membership.

The orca exhibit includes more than 100 artifacts about this apex predator and symbol of the Pacific Northwest. You’ll learn about orca biology, their history, Indigenous art and conservation efforts.

This exhibit packs a lot of wow, especially in the gallery where you meet three life-size orcas. The J pod members are superstars: Ruffles (easy to identify because of the wavy ridges of his dorsal fin), Slick and her calf Scarlet. Waves are projected around the perimeter of the room, and as you walk around the three orcas, you feel immersed in the ocean with them. It’s impossible not to be impressed.

Look up! In the next gallery, a life-size, anatomically correct orca skeleton carved from reclaimed cedar by artist Ken Hall arches overhead. In this room, we learned incredible facts about orcas:

  • There are more than a dozen unique kinds of orcas around the world, the most famous being our PNW Southern Residents.
  • Orcas and humans are among the five species where females live long past their reproductive years. (The other three are narwhals, belugas and short-finned pilot whales.) The life expectancy for male orcas is up to 35 years and 90 for females.
  • Orcas have deep emotional connections and strong family ties. In 2018, a grieving mother, Tahlequah, made headlines when she carried her stillborn calf for 17 days around the Salish Sea.

Orcas in captivity

The exhibit continues upstairs, with displays about orcas as aquarium entertainers and movie stars, and the consequences of orcas in captivity.

In 1965, the world’s first captive orca arrived in Seattle for display. The orca, named Namu, had been accidentally trapped in a fisherman’s net off the coast of British Columbia and was sold to the Seattle Marine Aquarium for $8,000. (To be clear, the current Seattle Aquarium, which opened in 1977, has never had orcas in human care.)

Between 1965 and 1975, 270 Southern Residents were captured, including Tokitae, then 4 years old. Today, there’s an active movement led by the Lummi nation to bring Tokitae, now 56, from the Miami Seaquarium back home to the PNW.

Indigenous art

In many Indigenous cultures of the northwest coast of North America, orcas are considered family members and ancestors. Stunning, original work by Indigenous artists takes center stage in this OMSI exhibit. Objects include an articulated dance mask by Richard Hunt (Kwaguilth) and a carved gold Killer Whale box by Bill Reid (Haida).

The OMSI exhibit also includes lots of kid-friendly interactive stations. There’s a big touchscreen table where you can learn about orca physiology on different tabs. On another screen, you keep the ocean healthy by placing an object in the matching hotspot. We liked playing “Orca or Not?” Listen to a recording and decide whether it’s an orca… a kitten or a crying baby?

We spent about an hour exploring the orca exhibit; you can stay as long as you want, and wander in and out. This is a great exhibit for kids of all ages, and it’s included with your admission. There are no timed tickets and no time limit. No food and drink are allowed inside this exhibit. The galleries are fully accessible for wheelchairs and strollers. Captions are written in English, Spanish and Braille.

Also at OMSI

Like PacSci, OMSi has an IMAX movie theater and planetarium. Unlike PacSci, it also has a restaurant-quality cafeteria, Theory, where you’ll find yummy food with a view of the Tilikum Crossing Bridge.

Upstairs, OMSI has a big dedicated room just for kids 6 and under, Science Playground. Parents of littles everywhere, rejoice!

OMSI even has its own submarine: The USS Blueback is docked in the Willamette River next to the science center. The extra $8.50 for a guided tour is worth every penny. Sub visitors must be 3 or older, and able to duck through small doorways. My kids were amazed by the all-you-can-eat soft-serve ice cream machine on board. I was appalled by the one bathroom shared by 77 enlisted submariners.

In the Life Sciences Hall, there’s an exhibit showing preserved embryos and fetuses at every stage of development. It’s easy to avoid this area if you’re uncomfortable seeing it with your family.

You can easily spend hours and hours in Turbine Hall. It’s a giant space where you can try out an earthquake simulator, build a flying machine, or conduct experiments in the chemistry lab. Have fun!

Where to see orcas in Seattle

If you’re lucky, you might spot orcas swimming in the Puget Sound from Discovery Park, Vashon Island and West Seattle. For a guaranteed orca sighting, head to Battle Point Park on Bainbridge Island, the Suquamish playground and Crossroads Park in Bellevue.

If you go

  • Orcas: Our Shared Future at OMSI
  • Where: 1945 S.E. Water Avenue, Portland, Ore.
  • When: May 13, 2023, to Jan. 28, 2024
  • Cost: $18 for adults 14 and up, $13 for youth 3-13 and $15 for seniors 63 and up. Children under 3 are free. The orca special exhibition is included in the price of admission.
  • Special discount: Admission costs just $5 per person on the first Sunday of each month.
  • Parking: $5 in the museum lot. Note your parking spot number and pay at the admissions desk.
  • Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday to Friday and Sunday; 9:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Saturday. OMSI is closed on Mondays during the school year. The museum will be open 7 days a week starting June 19.

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About the Author

JiaYing Grygiel

JiaYing Grygiel is a photographer and writer in Seattle. Find her on Instagram @photoj.seattle and at