Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary Living Sanctuary section includes Marine Life, Habitats, Ocean Environment, History and Culture
Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary Living Sanctuary section includes Marine Life, Habitats, Ocean Environment, History and Culture
Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary Living Sanctuary section includes Marine Life, Habitats, Ocean Environment, History and Culture


historic photo of Quilleute Needles What is now Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary has a long tradition of exploration. The northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula has had an almost magnetic attraction for sailors and cartographers for almost 400 years. Juan de Fuca was the name of a Greek ships' pilot who reported visiting what is now known as the the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the 1590s. It was here, according to the itinerant Greek ship pilot named Juan de Fuca, that the Northwest Passage emptied into the Pacific Ocean. Juan de Fuca, also known as Apostolos Valarianos, claimed that he found a passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in 1592. His visit was never confirmed although his name was preserved on later English maps.

historic photo of sailing ship For 200 years after his account was published in 1596, Spain, England, France and Russia all sent explorers to confirm his report and lay claim to the region and its riches. The earliest European explorations of the Pacific coast were conducted by the 16th century Spanish. These voyages were cloaked in secrecy. Documented Spanish exploration on the Northwest Coast began in earnest in the mid-1770s. The first known landing on the Washington coast was attributed to Bruno Heceta in 1775 at the mouth of the Hoh River. His crew were turned back by Indians and he returned to the south having missed the entrance to the strait.

historic photo of Cape Flattery During the next twenty years several European expeditions explored and mapped the Northwest Coast. Captain James Cook was already a noted Pacific explorer when he passed Cape Flattery on his way to Nootka in March 1787. It was on this voyage that Cook named Cape Flattery because it deceived (or "flattered") him into believing he might find Juan de Fuca's fabled strait to the east.

historic photo of fisherman The otter pelts the English obtained from the Indians were to be the key to opening the coast to European colonial ambitions. Cook's sailors sold the furs at great profit when they stopped in China after their Northwest Coast visit. Home in England, the sailors spread stories about the fantastic prices to be had for Northwest pelts in China. Following the publication of Cook's reports in 1784, British ships began to travel to the Pacific Northwest to hunt the sea otters.

Thanks to John Ledyard, one of Cook's Americanized crewmen, American traders began to learn about the potential wealth. New England ship owners, too, began to exploit the region's otters for their luxuriant fur.

Sea otters were hunted to extinction in Washington in the early 1900s. Otters from Alaska were reintroduced in 1969 and 1970 and gradually have made a comeback. The current sea otter population numbers over 500 and otters have been seen in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and along the west coast of Vancouver Island.

historic photo of a lighthouse As the British and Americans competed for economic supremacy in the Northwest fur trade, the Spanish were slowly eclipsed. Political events in Continental Europe combined to distract Spanish and English attention while the Americans seized the economic advantage. Spain's three-hundred year old New World empire had weakened while France's attempts at European empire building left the Pacific open to New England's seafaring Yankee traders. In an attempt to curb their competitors' incursions into the region, the Spanish had attempted to establish outposts at strategic places. Their primary port was at Nootka Bay on Vancouver Island. They established several outposts about the region including on at Neah Bay to serve as a base for surveying the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the San Juan Islands and the Georgia Strait. Although the bay commanded the entrance to the Strait and provided access to the sea, its shallow rocky bottom and exposure to northwest winds were disadvantages. The pallisaded settlement and port of Nuñez Gaona was briefly established at Neah Bay in spring 1792 under command of Salvador Fidalgo.

Because of tensions with the Makah and an unsettled political relationship with the British, Neah Bay was abandoned in the fall of 1792, leaving behind only the crude bricks of a primitive bread oven. The last established Spanish foothold on the Northwest Coast was also the first to fall.

historic photo of a town Two hundred years later, our explorations are very different. Instead of exploring to conquer, we are exploring to learn how to protect the marine environment. Although this place has been on the map for several centuries, we don't know much of what's below the surface other than rough contours of the bottom. Exploration involves discovery and it involves mystery.
But it also involves something more important - not just what flag flies over this part of the world, but what biological riches of the marine environment will be passed on to future generations.

Contact for page content: George Galasso
Photo of peach coral
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