SAN JUAN ISLANDS - Spieden Island has been called the Jurassic Park of Washington's San Juans, shrouded in mystery with reported sightings of everything from a Sasquatch to exotic animals found mostly in other parts of the world.
Maybe half of the lore about the privately owned Spieden Island is true.
It's a modern tale that began in 1969, when a group of investors bought this uninhabited 556-acre, three-mile-long island and stocked it with hundreds of grazing animals and nearly 2,000 game birds from around the world and renamed it "Safari Island."
Hunters paid to visit and shoot everything from Asian fallow deer to African guinea fowl.
"There wasn't much sport in chasing trapped animals in a van and gunning them down," says Dave Ceccarelli, the former Washington state representative who helped initiate legislation that shut down the shooting preserve.
Several species of exotic animals have thrived in the 22 years since hunting was stopped. Today, the more than 500 European Sika deer, Asian Fallow deer and Corsican Big Horn sheep are part of what makes the island special.
Four years ago, Jane Howard, a former science teacher, guide for natural and cultural-tours and designer of field-studies programs for schools and the Pacific Science Center, leased the island and transformed it into a conservationist's haven.
The safari-style tents, once occupied by hunters, now host students of nature at a marine-science camp called Island Institute.
The institute began as a living classroom in which teachers and youngsters could learn about marine mammals and go whale-watching. Today it's attracting lots of vacationers, too, especially families.
"You don't just go whale watching or snorkeling for a day and then head back to your isolated hotel at night," says Mary Margaret Callihan, 19, of Spokane, who participated in a week-long marine-mammal certification program last year.
Guests see wildlife on kayaking, scuba diving, snorkeling and walking outings. Marine biologists teach about tidepools, tides and currents, navigation, astronomy geology plus Native American history.
The grazing animals keep their distance during the day, but often sleep near the tents at night.
Of the nine one-week sessions offered during the 1994 summer season, four cater to all ages (including families); four are geared to ages 9-18; and one is an advanced camp that focuses on marine mammal ecology, College credit is available. Customized day trips, weekend packages and mini-camps also can be arranged. There's also child care for kids under six.
"This is not a hard-core camping crowd," says Brian Nichols, a marine biologist who has taught at a similar program in Florida and at the Yosemite Institute in California.
"We get a lot of families and people who want to experience the untamed side of the Northwest without really roughing it."
The 10 wood-platformed canvas tents are just steps from a modern lodge that offers bathrooms with showers, prepared meals, a library, swimming pool and jacuzzi.
Guests can sink into comfortable chairs during evening programs presented by staff members and visiting wildlife specialists. Programs range from native legends and story-telling to underwater photography and astronomy.
Other evening options are to relax by a campfire or sit at the water's edge and watch the glittering night sky.
"We're here to provide information without lecturing and make sure that anything we pick up to take a closer look at is replaced unharmed," says Nichols.
And then there's whale watching.
There are 92 resident orcas (or killer whales) in Haro Strait, and Island Institute Director Ken McCann claims to know each by name.
The day I went whale-watching, we saw 22.
"There's Ralph, he likes to hang around the nursery," McCann said, pointing over the railing of the 43-foot excursion boat at a large male orca and several babies.
"We used to think he had maternal instincts, but then we witnessed his ulterior amorous motives."
A former director of the Whale Museum at Friday Harbor, McCann specializes in marine mammals and ethno-botany (the study of plants and what they were originally used for).
"I've got the best classroom in the world here," says McCann.
"I can show the kids what plants the Native Americans used for deodorant or aspirin, tell them about how people lived before Nintendo was invented, and provide them with the curiosity to learn more."
McCann said Spieden Island could become a sanctuary, of sorts, for troubled children as well as animals.
"The atmosphere of this place has a way of breaking down barriers among teenagers. It doesn't take long before nobody's too cool to appreciate sighting a newborn fawn or starfish the size of a watermelon."
-- Spieden Island is an hour's boat ride from Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. It also can be reached by float plane from Seattle. The island is only accessible to visitors participating in an Island Institute program. -- Cost for a one-week "whale camp" program is $795, which includes transportation from San Juan Island, meals, lodging, guides and gear. Shorter "mini-camps" and other programs also are available.
-- For details contact: Island Institute, P.O. Box 1096, Friday Harbor, WA 98250. Phone (206) 463-ORCA or (206) 317-8423.
Jennifer Haupt is a Seattle freelance writer.