Mythical Sea Creatures and Puget Sound Marine Mammals

Last summer I wrote a post about a mysterious creature I saw one day in Puget Sound. At that time, my researching led me to conclude it was a group of porpoises—most likely Dall’s porpoises since they were the most common. The only other likely suspect, the harbor porpoise was thought to have long-since disappeared from Puget Sound, killed off by industrial pollution or entanglement in fishermens’ gill nets.

Since then, new information has revealed that harbor porpoises have made an extraordinary comeback in Puget Sound. Amazingly, they are now considered the most common marine mammal in the great Salish Sea!

So, I’m revising my conclusion: the mystery creature was most likely a group of three harbor porpoises.

Of course, we’ll never know for sure. It could have been a group of Dall’s porpoises out for a lazy swim off the shore of West Seattle. Or, maybe it really was a magical sea creature after all.

I’m not ruling anything out.

 

_________________________________________________________________________

(The following is a re-posting of my very first blog post)

_________________________________________________________________________

Sometimes I let my imagination run wild. Maybe I watched too many sci-fi thrillers when I was young, or maybe I just want to sprinkle a little artistic license on the ordinary world, but sometimes…I daydream up weird stuff. Just for the fun of it.

Once, I casually remarked to my husband as we walked on the beach, “Just imagine—right now—a giant mutant octopus emerging up out of Puget Sound! Wouldn’t that be awesome?

pugetsound

 

I should have known better than to say such a thing to a marine biologist!

But one day I actually saw something that seemed impossible. It was on the beach in West Seattle’s Lincoln Park—one of those typical Seattle days, with the water and the sky one solid slab of gray. No wind at all…the water smooth as glass. Not a soul in sight…no people, no boats, no ferries.

I had been walking along in the gray, thinking how nice it would be if water had no reflective surface. We already know what the sky looks like…why should the water mirror it for us? Wouldn’t it be better if Puget Sound was transparent from every angle, so we could see all the way to the bottom…see every bit of marine life in there?

Then a giant sea-serpent swam by right in front of me. Something straight out of Norse mythology. It had the familiar three-hump shape and the graceful rolling motion of a snake in the water. All that was missing was the arched head and the lashing tongue.

Lincoln Park

 

I watched it swim for at least ten minutes…three perfect dark humps rising smoothly in synchronized movements…one after the other. It went slowly, in playful figure-eights, spiraling out further and further off shore. And each time a hump rose and fell, it sprayed off a neat little fountain of water.

Daydreamer shifted into Naturalist. It must be three separate animals. Baby orca? Orcas are not unusual in Puget Sound—I’ve seen pods quite a few times. But no, orcas are lots bigger, and this was three creatures of similar size, not a baby with adults.

I ran through the list of common Puget Sound marine mammals: sea lions, harbor seals…no, they move differently. They swim for a while, then stop and poke their noses up and look around. Usually, they look right at you. Same with river otters. And I’ve never seem them swim synchronized like that.

I figured there had to be something I was forgetting, and of course there was: Dall’s porpoise. Dall’s porpoises are rare in Puget Sound, and I’ve never seen them here before. Plus, I’ve always thought of porpoises as swimming fast, darting through the water, not lazy like these were. And I didn’t remember seeing any dorsal fins. But they best fit the description, right down to the distinctive “rooster-tail” splashes they make.

dalls porpoises2

 

 

I feel a little silly about the whole sea-serpent thing. But it does make me feel better that my husband didn’t think of porpoises either. “Gosh, Dee,” he said when I described what I had seen and asked what he thought, “maybe it was a magical sea creature.”

I’ll never live down the ‘mutant octopus’ remark.

So now when I walk the beach, I look for porpoises. And I think about all the living things out there in Puget Sound. But I still wish water didn’t have a mirrored surface. Maybe then it would seem like more than just a body of water…maybe it would seem more like a place where actual creatures are trying to live. Maybe then, we would care more about protecting it.

___________________________________________________________________________

 

 

Wildfire and the Fourth of July

When I heard the awful news on Sunday that 19 firefighters died fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, I immediately thought back to the Mann Gulch Fire of 1949. I had studied Mann Gulch for an interpretive project for the U.S. Forest Service. I also wrote a post about it last winter, and wondered briefly if now would be a good time to re-publish it. On the one hand, it seemed too soon, too sad. But, since most of the West is a dried-up tinderbox, and as we’re headed into the fire-crazed Fourth of July season, I decided that the more we think about the dangers of fire, the better.

By the way…does anyone else wish we would find a better way to celebrate Fourth of July? Maybe with red, white and blue waterballoons? Light-shows?

Anything but fire?

Here’s the re-post from last winter:

____________________________________________________________________

Interpreting Tragedy

Occasionally in my interpretive sign career, I have been hired to deal with difficult, sensitive topics. Many historical themes fall into this category…our nation’s past has its share of dark subject matter, after all.

One particularly sad project was an interpretive sign I did for the U.S. Forest Service in Montana about the tragedy at Mann Gulch, a wildfire that killed thirteen young firefighters in 1949.

DeniseDahnMannGulch

At full size, the sign is 2 x 3 feet.

 

The Forest Service wanted to tell the story of the fire to honor those who died as well as the three who survived. They also wanted to frame the story in the greater context of what it taught us about firefighting techniques. There were a lot of hard lessons learned at Mann Gulch.

The sign was to be installed on the ridge above the canyon where the fire occurred. From the viewpoint, you can see across to the very place where the men died. It’s a chilling view.

This is where the sign was installed.

This is where the sign was installed.

 

This detail from the sign shows the route the men followed from the time they were dropped in by helicopter until they were engulfed by fire.

I illustrated this detail on the sign showing the route the men followed from the time they were dropped in by helicopter until they were engulfed by fire.

The Fire

The lightning-caused fire was—as most wildfires are—small at first. But it was a windy day and soon the fire “jumped” downhill to the mouth of the gulch—a much more dangerous position. Fires naturally burn uphill, and fueled by the tall, dry summer grasses, it soon “blew up” into a raging monster, racing uphill until it became a three-story high wall of flame, burning with the intensity of a giant blow-torch.

 

The Sign Project

One of the difficulties in interpretation is deciding what to include and what to leave out. On a sign, you are limited to approximately 150 words or so—not many when you consider how complicated most topics are. The objective is not to impart knowledge or information as much as it is to spark curiosity and interest. We want viewers to walk away with questions…wanting to know more.

But Mann Gulch was also a particularly sensitive subject. There was still one survivor alive at the time, as well as many close family members of the men who had died. The Forest Service wanted the subject matter handled carefully, out of respect for their feelings.

I decided on an approach to help the viewer relate the events of the day to the place—to bring the story alive. As in most sign projects, the graphics are where you hope to tell the story. I wanted to create illustrations that would ignite a sequence of events in the viewers’ imaginations—as if they were standing in this very spot in 1949 and witnessing those terrible events.

Here are some close-up snippets from the sign. You can’t see at this scale, but there are tiny little marks that indicate where the men were at each stage. Click on the photos for a larger view.

(Watercolor illustrations by me, Denise Dahn)

The fire started close to where the viewers stand as they read the sign. The smokejumpers dropped in by parachute.

The fire started close to where the viewers stand as they read the sign. The smokejumpers dropped in by parachute. (watercolor illustration by me – Denise Dahn)

 

As the men were heading down, the fire jumped the creek. Suddenly the men found themselves trapped in the canyon, with no way to get to the river and to safety. Fires naturally burn uphill, but the only way out was up, so the men turned and tried to outrun the fire as it raged behind them.

As the men were heading down, the fire jumped the creek. Suddenly the men found themselves trapped in the canyon, with no way to get to the river and to safety. Fires naturally burn uphill, but the only way out was up, so the men turned and tried to outrun the fire as it raged behind them. (Watercolor illustration by Denise Dahn).

 

 

DeniseDahnMannGulch-3

Watercolor illustration by Denise Dahn

 

 

DeniseDahnMannGulch-4

Watercolor illustration by Denise Dahn

 

 

Leaving with a thought

The concluding message on the sign was “They did not die in vain.” The investigation and study of this fire led to new and improved strategies and techniques in modern fire fighting. This tragedy may have ultimately saved the lives of future firefighters.

Unfortunately, Mann Gulch was not the last tragic wildfire. Firefighting is a dangerous business.

All the more reason to be careful with fire. You know that already, right?

 

 

_________________________________________________________________________

To read a detailed blow-by-blow account of the events at Mann Gulch http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mann_Gulch_fire

To read a blog post on Mann Gulch by the Forest History Society http://fhsarchives.wordpress.com/2009/07/10/visiting-mann-gulch-60-years-later/

To read a popular book based on events at Mann Gulch check out “Young Men and Fire” by Norman Maclean

To see a video about the fire and one of the firefighters, S. Raymond Thompson http://vimeo.com/37412195

_______________________________________________________________________

Have you ever been near a wildfire? Have you ever worked as a firefighter or smokejumper? Have you ever been to Mann Gulch?

Do you think our country should find a better, less dangerous and potentially catastrophic way to celebrate the Fourth of July than with fireworks?

Leave a reply in the box below!

 

 

Finally, some leadership on climate change

Today, President Obama gave his first real speech on climate change.

Apparently, he surprised everyone with his sweeping measures, and his “line in the sand” on the Keystone XL pipeline, saying he won’t approve it if it would significantly increase climate pollution. His plan includes new spending on renewable technologies, and he encouraged divestment in fossil fuels.

“The question is now whether we will have the courage to act before it is too late,” Mr. Obama said.

I wish it had come sooner, but I understand the reasons behind the delay. It was political reality. At least now, there are some bold steps in the right direction.

Like the President, I only hope it is not too late.

 

DDahnMeadow

I did this watercolor illustration for my Nevada Wildlife Project. It shows some of the small creatures that live in meadow habitat around the city of Reno.What will happen to these animals in the coming decades?

Read the coverage in the New York Times.

Read the coverage in National Geographic

See what 350.org has to say.

Read the transcript of the speech.

 

What do you think?

Moon Madness

It’s almost the summer solstice, and almost time for our annual Supermoon (Sunday, June 23). This seems like a good time to re-run this post…originally published last fall.

(I’ll be back soon with new posts. I’m buried in deadlines right now.)

___________________________________________________________________________

 

The night had been dead quiet, but as soon as the full moon rose, so did the noise level. I was sleeping under the stars on a crisp summer night in the Eastern Cascades–or at least I had been sleeping, until the din of what seemed like thousands of chattering creatures woke me up.  I lay curled in my sleeping bag for hours, listening to the echoing chorus and watching the silvery moonlight play across the meadow.

From: Moon Madness

A watercolor sketch I did of Camas Meadows, in the eastern Cascades.

 

I tried to identify the animals I was hearing, but it was all a-jumble. If I had to guess I would say frogs, toads, crickets, coyotes, and owls. Possibly others, but who knows?

It was a crazy sound—hooting, yelping, buzzing—animals driven into a frenzy by the glare of the moonlight. Were they glad to have the light…or frustrated by it?

The moon dropped slowly behind the snowy peaks and the sky grew darker. Then, the instant the moon disappeared, everything fell silent—as suddenly as if someone had flipped a switch. No moon, no chattering.

I stayed awake for a few more minutes marveling at the lunar effect on animal life. It made me think of wolves—an animal I’ve yet to hear—or see—in the wild. I’ve read that wolves howling is unlike any other sound…soulful, magical and frighteningly beautiful.

I wondered if there were wolves mixed into that chorus of wildsong. It’s not impossible…they’ve started to come back into these lands they once inhabited. Slowly. Tentatively. Carefully. Not without casualties.

I’ve been thinking about wolves lately—they’ve been in the news a lot recently. Last year, California got its first wolf in nearly a century—a lone wolf from the Imnaha pack in Oregon; in Washington, an entire pack was recently killed by the state for depredation of livestock; several western states and most recently Wisconsin and Minnesota now allow wolf hunting and trapping.

Wolves are symbolic in many ways—of struggle to survive, of decline or recovery of natural systems, and of difficulties we have as Americans to understand each other and to live together in an increasingly “hot, flat and crowded” world.

These days, it seems like everybody is mad about something. Maybe we’re not unlike the creatures of the night—mad at the moon for making it too hard to be nocturnal. Maybe if we quieted down and listened for a change—to each other and to Nature and what it’s trying to tell us…we’d all have a better chance of survival.

 

____________________________________________________________________________

Want to know whenever I publish a new post?  Sure you do! Just enter your email address in the “subscribe” box in the left-hand sidebar on my home page. You’ll get an email notice each time a new post is published. That’s all there is to it! Your email will never be shared.

If you like the blog, please tell your friends about it or “share” or “like” it on Facebook. (See button in sidebar).

And, leave any comments or questions in the box below. I love hearing from you!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gray Wolf

Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced their recommendation to remove gray wolves from the Endangered Species List.*

Last fall, I wrote a post on gray wolves, illustrated with the sketch shown below. Given the news from the USFWS, I thought this would be a good time to revisit wolves with a few updates.

DeniseDahn_graywolf

This is a watercolor I did of “Journey”, the lone wolf that left Oregon’s Imnaha Pack and crossed into California last year. Journey was the first wild wolf in California in nearly a century. It was almost Halloween when I painted this, and I was in a dark and spooky mood!

 

___________________________________________________________________________

Why do we need gray wolves?

Among other reasons, the gray wolf is a keystone predator, which means it is fundamentally important to the entire ecosystem. Also called a top predator or apex predator, these species are important in keeping predator-prey populations in balance. Without top predators, smaller prey species like birds, small mammals or reptiles can decline.

___________________________________________________________________________

What happened to Journey? Did he find a mate?

After spending the winter in the Sierras and southern Cascades, Journey, the first wild wolf in California in almost a century, finally decided to ditch the golden state. Last March, his radio collar showed he had crossed the border back into into Oregon. Apparently, since he had been unable to find a mate in California, Journey saw no reason to stay there. You can find out more about Journey here.

____________________________________________________________________________

What’s going on with wolves in Washington State?

•According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in Washington State (as of April 2012) there are 43 wolves in 7 packs, with 4 breeding pairs. That is much lower than Montana (625 wolves) or Idaho (683 wolves).

Conservation Northwest has since tallied 9 Washington packs in fall of 2012.

•The proposed delisting of gray wolves from the Endangered Species Act will particularly affect wolves in the Washington Cascades, where there are less than 20 individuals and 2 breeding pairs.

•Last year, the pilot program Range Rider, a partnership between the Department of Fish and Wildlife, Conservation Northwest and cattle ranchers went into effect. Essentially a guard, a cowboy or cowgirl rides with the herd in the open range, keeping the animals together, treating sick or injured ones, and just by their human presence…discouraging wolf attacks. The results were good: all the cows came home safe and sound this year.

•The on-going construction work on I-90 over Snoqualmie Pass includes wildlife crossings that might help wolves and other animals move between the North Cascades and Mt. Rainier National Park, the two largest areas of wildlife habitat remaining in the state. Gray wolves, wolverine, lynx, grizzly bear, and cougar are some of the large mammals that wildlife biologists hope will be able to safely cross I-90 into these areas.

•In February 2013, Rep. Joel Kretz of Wauconda, Washington, proposed a bill to move gray wolves west over the Cascades to the Olympic Peninsula and the San Juan Islands. (so funny, I forgot to laugh)

•Read more about the Proposed Delisting of Gray Wolves.

_____________________________________________________________________

What do you think? Do you think wolves should be removed from the Endangered Species Act, or kept on it?

 

*There is a 90-day public comment period, starting Thursday, June 13th.

 

 

Want to know whenever I publish a new post?  Sure you do! Just enter your email address in the “subscribe” box in the left-hand sidebar on my home page. You’ll get an email notice each time a new post is published. That’s all there is to it! Your email will never be shared.

If you like the blog, please tell your friends about it or “share” or “like” it on Facebook. (See button in sidebar).

And, leave any comments or questions in the box below. I love hearing from you!