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?



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.




Puget Sound

Our inland sea needs help


If you visit the Seattle Aquarium, you might come away thinking Puget Sound is a bright, beautiful undersea wonderland. In some places, it is.

But overall…Puget Sound is in serious trouble.

(Click on the images to get a larger view)

I did this watercolor after spending some time at the Seattle Aquarium. These types of “habitat and species” illustrations are meant as a condensed versions of reality—to inspire curiosity and wonder. But do they give a wrong impression that Puget Sound is bursting with healthy life?


Puget Sound has toxic levels of many different chemicals, and it is killing the ecosystem. At one time, we could have blamed Big Industry for Puget Sound’s problems.

I did this sign for my West Bay Park project in Olympia. It shows historical uses of the working waterfront. Today, some of that area has been restored.


Today, the biggest source of pollution in Puget Sound is not Big Industry. It’s us…you, me and pretty much everyone who drives a car or lives in a house in the Puget Sound Basin. It’s called  Nonpoint Source Pollution—meaning not coming from one point, but coming from many points.

Basically, anything toxic on the ground or city streets—like motor oil or lawn chemicals—will end up in Puget Sound. Over time, the accumulations take a serious toll on marine life.

I did this illustration of Non-Point-Source Pollution for a project at Lost River Cave in Kentucky. It’s a different type of watershed there, but the idea is the same. Everyday pollutants end up in water…either ground water, or major water bodies like Puget Sound.



This aerial view I did for my Arboretum project, shows how the Puget Sound basin is ringed by mountains—and by major urban areas. Extending north into Canada, Puget Sound is also called The Salish Sea.


Looking east, with Seattle in the foreground, you see the Cascade Range, which collects lots of precipitation as snow and rain. But between the mountains and Puget Sound are urban Seattle and the eastside cities and suburbs. By the time time flowing water reaches the Sound, it has picked up a lot of contaminants. (But, rest assured… Seattle’s drinking water is pure and protected.)


(Close up view of the Seattle skyline as it often looks. Gray on gray.)


If we want to protect marine life in the Sound, we all must help. Find out how you can help protect water quality.


What is your favorite Puget Sound marine creature?

For me, it’s a tie between the Pacific giant octopus and the wolf eel. At the Seattle Aquarium, I like watching the wolf eels swimming in the dome room. They are the most graceful swimmers! Watching them is positively hypnotic.

Wolf eels are fish, not eels. The male and female often live together and breed for many years.
















And they have such a face! A real mug. Love it!









What is the fate of Puget Sound?

Find out more…

Puget Sound Partnership

Washington State Department of Ecology

West Seattle Blog


Puget Sound Starts Here

Seattle Aquarium


What do you think?

Are you looking for ways to become a non-nonpoint polluter?

Leave a reply!

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