Sailing into Friday Harbor, you can’t miss the set of long, low-slung buildings along the water’s northern edge. They are home to the famed Friday Harbor Laboratories (FHL), a research outpost housed within the larger University of Washington College of the Environment. The labs have operated over one hundred years, first gaining notoriety for their impact in evolutionary and neuroscience. Over the decades, the labs have added marine ecology, seawater chemistry, biomechanics and all flavors of oceanography to their research repertoire. Known the world over, it’s a haven for ocean scientists to conduct research.

person sitting in chair outside
Whiteley Center Scholar Véronique Robigou catches a few rays after the fog clears at FHL.

Yet it’s not just a haven for marine scientists. Tucked under the red-barked madrona trees and willowy fir trees on the campus’ west side sits a cluster of small cabins oriented behind what seems like a larger cabin. These are the visible manifestations of the Helen Riaboff Whiteley Center, a shelter and workplace perched above the saltwater for scholars of all stripes. It’s what happens behind these walls, and indeed throughout FHL’s campus, that is truly remarkable. Over the years countless visitors have come and gone, then come again, to unlock their creativity and tap into something that can be difficult to access elsewhere.

The Center’s visionaries were Arthur and Helen Whiteley, long-time researchers at FHL and equally importantly stalwart members of the broader community. In the 1990s, Arthur hatched an idea for a center to honor his late-wife’s legacy. The vision centered around creating a place where scholars of all kinds — not just the marine-focused scientists that typically visit FHL — could gather to write, study, think and create in a place of beauty and quiet. It would be a destination where people could retreat alone with their thoughts, or gather to advance new and exciting ideas together. A critical distinction between the Center and Laboratories was that it should not be a place to collect new data, take care of administrative tasks or become an extension of the Lab’s day-to-day operations. This place was to be special, and in 2000 Arthur’s vision became a reality when the Helen Riaboff Whiteley Center campus opened.

The Center now has a two-decade track record of inspiring creativity in scholarship. While each individual travels to the Center for their own purposes, they share some common experiences that are core to the Center’s mission and charm.

A Feeling of Being Unencumbered

The fast-paced world we all live in often detracts from living in the moment and being fully present. The Whiteley Center serves as a refuge, allowing scholars to step away from the world’s hustle and bustle and focus on what matters.

LeiLani Nishime, a professor at the UW, often visits as part of a larger cohort of scholars. “Everyone who is part of the group has not only academic responsibilities, but personal and social responsibilities. This is a time where people can step away and focus on something different.”

Chris Teuton is also a professor at the UW and spends his time diving deep into the endangered Cherokee language, focusing on writing a new book. The Center gives him “the freedom to devote the time I need to get the book done.”

Artists and writers frequent the Center, too. Penelope Moffet, a poet based in Los Angeles, has visited the Center twice. “There’s a feeling of time being wide open; there is rarely anything scheduled,” she says. And Veronique Robigou, an artist and geologist from Seattle, remarks that “the pressures of the outside world are left at the door. At the Whiteley Center, you breathe your work within your life and vice versa, and render both experiences more intense, pleasurable and often more productive.”

Surrounded by Natural Beauty 

It is no secret that the San Juan Islands are a jewel of Washington state. Situated within the Salish Sea and accessible only by boat or plane, the 400-plus islands are surrounded by wildlife both on land and in the water. It is a key ingredient to the productivity so many scholars experience.

“I knew I liked the northwest, I had been a number of times, but I was still really stunned by the beauty at the Center,” says Moffet. “The discovery of the place and what it brings up for me — that is what I like. I would write, read, go for a ramble, write on my ramble, and then write again in my cottage.”

Robigou draws inspiration directly from the Center’s surroundings. “Much of my art comes from the sea,” she says. “Being surrounded by nature is important.”

painting of octopus
Mardy Sears’ painting of Enzyme the octopus.

Mardy Sears, a multimedia artist from Chicago also finds her muse in the sea. “I completely fell in love with a particular octopus named Enzyme,” Sears recounts. “It was a red octopus, and I was able to see it and feed it. They are so smart!” She created a painting featuring that octopus, which is now featured prominently on her website.

Serendipity and Inspiration

Part of what makes the greater FHL campus a gem is that people from all over the world and from all backgrounds come together. Most are eager to share their story, listen to yours and while the evening hours away in good company. The opportunities for chance encounters are numerous and serve as a source of inspiration to the work of the scholars at the Center.

“The conversations with people doing scientific research were really interesting and contributed to the poems I was writing,” says Moffet. For instance, when she learned from a graduate student that a gray whale has really bad breath, that detail was added to a new poem called “Thumbprint”. “No other retreat I’ve been to has offered access to scientists doing research.”

“You don’t know who will be in the desk nearby or around campus,” says Bruce Nelson, a professor of Earth and Space Sciences at UW. “The randomness of who you run into and what you might talk about often feed into what I am working on. The randomness does not distract, but it adds to my productivity. All this serendipitous stuff happens, and it’s just fabulous.”

A trip to the dining hall often holds the biggest surprises for new conversations and connections. “I love the interactions with folks in the dining hall, love the chance encounters,” says Robigou. “You meet all these other researchers, often from other countries, all in this little microcosm. Even though it’s this tiny spot, all these people gather in a way that you can’t elsewhere.”

But the dining hall and resident researchers aren’t the only sources of inspiration. “I learn from elders through our conversations,” Teuton says. “I really just listen and let it flow. I love how the Center gives scholars the space to do their work.”

Nishime adds, “Being at the Center feels like something magical, like a fairy story or something. The impact lasts so much longer than I expect.”

It All Adds Up

Over the years, the Whiteley Center has seen hundreds of scholars reap the benefits of its intended purpose. Nelson, who also serves on the Center’s Administrative Committee, reflects on its accomplishments. “I’ve looked back at why this Center exists, why Arthur did this. The sense of interdisciplinary interaction, being more relaxed and having better thinking in a relaxed place, the randomness of interaction…this is exactly what he envisioned. I think it’s amazing that FHL and the Center brought this vision to life.”

The deeper story of each of these scholars is published on the Friday Harbor Laboratories website as part of a broader celebration of the Whiteley Center’s 20th Anniversary –to read them, or learn more about how to become a Scholar yourself, visit the Center’s webpage.