Edmonds orca: An icon at the beach

John Hurley, at age 90, continues to check in on his driftwood creation.
By Brian Soergel | Jan 24, 2018
Photo by: Brian Soergel John Hurley with his driftwood orca in Edmonds. Picture taken Sunday, Jan. 21.

The ferry is no doubt the most photographed icon in Edmonds. But just off to its side, at the base of the Brackett’s Landing North jetty, is the orca.

Since installed in 1994, the driftwood sculpture has been the willing backdrop to thousands of memories. People of all ages have posed beside it, and kids who once climbed aboard now lift their own little ones onto its well-worn frame for digital keepsakes.

Look closely, and you’ll see the artist’s inscription: “Hurley 94.”

That’s John Hurley, whose tireless upkeep of his beloved work has kept the orca positioned by Puget Sound, where rain, wind, snow – and even sun – wear it down and once even caused it to topple over a few years ago. More on that later.

On Sunday, Jan. 21, I met Hurley at the orca, where he gamely tried to straddle it, as he’s done many times. But a wicked wind, plus a crumbling fin acting as a step that’s deteriorated due to repeated use, conspired against him.

We should mention that Hurley is 90 years old.

I met Hurley recently when he stopped by the Beacon office in Mukilteo to drop off a classified ad. I happened to stroll by and noticed he carried a book called “The Edmonds Whale.” We chatted for a while, and he told me his daughter, Nancy Hurley-Madison, created the photo book for his 90th birthday on Oct. 7 last year.

“It made me cry,” Hurley said, turning the pages to reveal images of the orca throughout the years, many showing his five children and wife, Bonnie.

It was past due for a story on this man.

Driftwood on the beach

It was more than 25 years ago that Hurley found the driftwood that would become the orca, washed up on Brackett’s Landing South. He formed its shape and placed it down on the waterfront. He first spray-painted the familiar black-and-colors, but soon realized that only real, thick paint could get past the elements.

You could call it “folk art.” Whatever it was called back in the 1990s, though, it wasn’t part of the city’s public art program, and city workers eventually hauled it off. After Hurley discovered his orca missing after a vacation, he quickly contacted the city and an agreement was reached on placing it by the jetty.

Hurley bolted metal legs on the orca, welded it together with nuts, and planted it into the ground in 1994.

Fast-forward 21 years to March 2015. The driftwood orca was feeling its age. One day it simply collapsed. Turns out the metal legs rusted through at their bases, and part of the orca’s backside were rotted out.

City workers took it to the Parks Department service yard, where the intent was to get rid of it, Hurley said.

No. Just no.

Word spread through town. People wanted it restored. Salish Sea Brewery said it would take it as is, fix it up and hang it up inside.

Hurley was given a chance to refurbish his orca, at his cost.

The refurbished orca took three months of work to round back into shape. He banged in some nails, spread some epoxy, put in a bunch of screws, replaced the metal legs and filled in the rotted interior with more than 50 pounds of concrete patch. The original fin was gone; the new one is the third. (“On prom night one year, somebody knocked it off,” Hurley said.)

The renovated orca was complete with fresh paint. Hurley did pay for most of the costs, but the city paid for new bolts and for moving it to a newer location a few feet west of the old one, Parks and Recreation Director Carrie Hite said. “It’s wildly popular,” she said.

“It’ll last a long time now,” Hurley said. “It’s doing well for the amount of abuse it gets.”

He loves the new location. “It’s 10 times better; it just stands out. Oh, by golly.”

Late-blooming artist

After an honorable discharge from the Navy in 1948 – he served on the light cruiser USS Astoria – Hurley said he hitchhiked from Minnesota to the Pacific Northwest, where relatives talked him into staying. He now lives in Lynnwood after years in Shoreline.

“I got a part-time job, and the money was better than I could make in Minnesota, so I stayed,” he said. He would be an electrician for the next 42 years. During this time, most of the art he created was confined to watercolor painting and decorating store windows during the holidays.

“I started working with wood about the time I retired,” Hurley said. “Golly, when did I retire? I should have that down. About 18 years ago, something like that.”

Hurley has sold much of his work over the years; you can see several examples inside Toshi’s Teriyaki on Main Street.

But it’s the orca at Brackett’s Landing North that everyone – residents and tourists – know best.

“People walk along the beach and try to keep kids off it,” he said. “But I say, oh no, I gave it to the city, and I want it to be 4 feet high and hands on. They can’t hurt it, and I can repair it. I come down once or twice a month to check it out and paint it if necessary. Twice a year, it gets a full coat.”

Hurley said the orca has gone through 40 coats of paint.

He hopes it has a long, long life; his family said they promise to keep an eye on the 8-foot fir-log orca after he’s gone. And that’s why he plans to give daughter Nancy paint specifications and where to purchase it.

Both John and Nancy want people to know there’s a Facebook page for the famous creation under the name My Edmonds Orca. “We want people to post their pictures and experiences,” Nancy said.

For Hurley, visiting the orca to check out its condition is only part of his visit. He said he loves the interaction he gets when people get a glimpse of the creator creating.

“I’ve had so many good comments. People thank me for the time I put on it, and the energy I spend working on it. It just makes me happy that my work is there, and my family says they are going to maintain it after I’m gone.”


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