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  • Writer's pictureMark C. Anderson

Incredible Images of the Salish Sea from the Book Dedicated to It—and a Deep Dive with the Co-Author

Updated: Sep 6, 2020

The Salish Sea reaches a depth of 1,467 feet, stretches as wide as 135 miles and covers some 2,600 square miles. It provides habitat and home to 8 million people, 37 species of mammals, 172 species of birds, 253 species of fish, and more than 3,000 species of invertebrates.

But anyone even superficially familiar with these Pacific Northwestern waters knows they defy any simple summary. Even with an unlimited amount of statistics, words and images, doing them justice is an impossible task.

Only that’s what Audrey DeLella Benedict and Joseph K. Gaydos have accomplished with The Salish Sea: Jewel of the Pacific Northwest, across 148 eye-popping pages.

Benedict is an author, biologist and a tireless advocate for the conservation of the world's oceanic, Arctic and alpine environments. She founded and directs Cloud Ridge Naturalists, a nonprofit natural history educational organization. She's also a board member at the Orcas Island-based SeaDoc Society, a UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine program under the umbrella of the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center. (For more on SeaDoc's mission, see the Q&A below.)

Gaydos is SeaDoc's chief scientist, a licensed wildlife veterinarian and a decade-long student of the fish and wildlife of the Salish Sea. He tracks population animal health more than, say, solitary cetaceans and seals, but spends a night a week working at the island's animal shelter conducting surgeries so he has a dynamic sense of how individual animals are doing too. He also serves on Washington state's Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery Task Force, with which he hopes to sow the best science-based policy decisions for their survival.

Another engaging—and public-facing—component of his work is a stirring marine creature video series viewable via SeaDoc Society's YouTube channel.

This Sept. 17, SeaDoc celebrates 20 years with a virtual live celebration and wine tasting. For PNW nature lovers, that feels like required viewing.

For the book, the pair tracked down 55 photographers, reviewing some 6,000 of their photos to cull 230 of their favorites. (Some of the unused photos will feature in prominently for future publications.)

A small sampling of The Salish Sea imagery appears in this blog, with permission from the authors and photographers (and their watermarks in the bottom left corner).

The book is the first to describe the Salish Sea with such depth and texture, and remains the definitive description of waters not officially recognized by that name until 2008. In fact, that helped inspire the project.

"We wanted to help reveal what this newly named place was," Gaydos says.

The book got me from the get-go.

But it's not just the photos, though those are self-evident in their power, from the cover to the treasures tucked in the index—images of river otters, vivd anemones and yawning baby shorebirds among them. (Or is the little one screaming?)

It's the interplay of poetry and science, wonder and insight. Gaydos tells the hope was to make every page a revelation in and of itself—flip open to a page, and page, and learn something, likely with a side dish of whoah.

Mission accomplished.

Here’s a taste of the poetry that runs throughout the book, a passage from the opening salvo:

Imagine, for a moment, your view from a clifftop aerie. The sea is the color of ancient jade. Rocky islets in the distance appear to float on luminous cushions of fog. The forest around you shimmers with raindrops, the air fragrant with the exhalations of Douglas firm and red cedar.

A misty breeze rifles the water, carrying the evocative perfume of the sea at low tide. The raucous calls of black oystercatchers pierced the velvet quiet as they squabble over foraging rights to a newly emergent archipelago of tide pools. suddenly, you hear a powerful whooshing sound and see a glistening black back and tall dorsal fin—a male orcacleave the smooth swell that lingers in the ropey fronds of kelp just off the point.

Four more orcas surface in the male's wake, their smaller dorsal fins, there's smaller dorsal fins emerging in sequence as graceful as the opening of an oriental fan. Just as magically as they appeared, the five orcas below in unison and then dive, disappearing into the depths. The clearing sky to the east reveals the snowy summit of Mount Baker rising above the fog like a ghost peak set a drift.

There's no better place to be in the world at this moment


I talked with Gaydos as we sat at a distance on Orcas Hotel veranda overlooking the Salish Sea, and then he shared some of the rich photos from the book and more about Orcas Island, SeaDoc and its inspired work:

Explore Orcas Blog: You mentioned SeaDoc is really a science program—not an advocacy group—that really emphasizes info accessibility for the public. Why is that an important emphasis?

Gaydos: Science should be freely available for everybody to use. We feel strongly about that and even have this on our website where we list [scientific] publications:

Our mission is to empower people—regardless of economic status or background—to join us in the effort to conserve this special place. That is why all of our published scientific research is open-access, meaning you are free to read, download and share it at no cost.

We invest extra time and money to make this possible because we believe equal access to scientific data is important.

In a related note, SeaDoc is all about “translating science into action.” Can you expand on that?

Representatives and senators don’t have time to read and distill long scientific publications. They want the short story with salient facts, why it matters, and what can be done.

It is important for scientists to make sure that the people that can use their data, like elected officials, have access to the data in a way they can use it.

You can’t just send people making a decision on creating a marine protected area a bunch of scientific papers and expect they have the time to distill what they say and infer the pros and cons of the decision they are making.

You and your co-author composed the book to celebrate a special place with a new name. It's clearly a passion project—why?

We are all about place-based conservation. That means getting people to know and connect to a place so they will want to protect it. Our books on the Salish Sea are designed to help people get to know and love this place so they’ll take better care of it.

What was most rewarding about the project?

I was inspired to be working with such a great team on both books—my co-author, the photo curator, a founding member of the International League of Conservation Photographers, Wendy Shattil, our editor Alice Levin, and the designer Ann Douden. They made it fun, beautiful, easy-to-read. I just brought facts and inspiration to the table.

How do you describe the Salish Sea to people who haven’t visited? (Or don't engage with it as much as you do?)

I tell them to imagine a big, 17,000-square-kilometer inland sea that is shared by Washington State and British Columbia. It's a place where oxygen-rich fresh water and-nutrient rich sea water mix to provide the foundation for over 3,000 different invertebrate species, 253 fish species, 172 bird species and 38 species of mammals, including three types of killer whales.

What could be better?

You collaborate on Explore Salish Sea books for kids. What’s the best outcome that can emerge?

Explore the Salish Sea engages kids with the place where they live while secretly teaching them all of the next generation science standards they are required to learn in 5th grade. Plus, the photos are awesome!

Can you speak to the dedication in the book? (Which happens to be set against an insane photo of a snowy owl with a snowy peak.) It reads in part “with profound gratitude to all those who love the Salish Sea and who have devoted their personal and professional efforts to ensuring we can give future generations the gift that keeps on giving—a healthy Salish Sea”?

Whether we know it or not, we depend on the Salish Sea in so many ways. When it is degraded, that impacts our health, our economy, and our quality of life. We all have an obligation to take care of this place as if our lives and our livelihoods depended on it, because they do!

What are some of the scarier things threatening the welfare of the Salish Sea? (And how do you observe climate change locally?)

The ocean and Salish Sea are absorbing vast quantities of all of the CO2 we have put into the atmosphere. Through a series of chemical reactions this is dropping the pH of the water—what scientists call acidification.

As the pH drops, organisms that make shells have a harder time making shells. You can debate climate change all day, but the reality is we are already seeing the pH drop in the Salish Sea and organisms like pteropods, oysters and Dungeness crabs are having trouble making shells at certain times of the year.

This is really scary. We eat crabs and clams and lot of other animals who eat pteropods. The food web is changing right before our eyes. Now is the time to act.

What are some good ways for visitors to help conserve the Orcas Island and Salish ecosystem?

Be aware that you are on an island and water is in short supply during the summer.

Go to the beach and enjoy exploring, but don’t trample and trash the beach.

Tell your friends what an amazing place the Salish Sea is and why we need to take care of it.

Vote like the Salish Sea matters—it does!

Speed round! What surprises people about the book?

The photos—definitely the photos. They reveal so much that is hard to see on a casual stroll to the beach. They “show” you the ecosystem.

What’s your favorite obscure marine creature?

Oh definitely the spiny lumpsucker, a tiny fish that has fins that have developed into a suction cup on its belly. It can’t swim for crap, but dang is it adorable!

Your number one way to relax outdoors?

Running. I love running and seeing the world from trails and beaches.

Favorite terrestrial Orcas adventure?

Running up to Turtle Head [in Turtleback Mountain Preserve], sitting down, and taking in the 280-degree view. Heaven.

Number one on-island food snack?

Apples—so many apples to be eaten in the fall—each bite is joy!

Who's on your short list of marine heroes?

I’d be lying if I didn’t say Jacques Cousteau—he amazed us all when we were kids. Oh, and Steve Zissou too—humor is important!

If you were any native species, what would you be?

I’d be a rockfish—they can live to be over 100 years old and some of them stay in the same place that whole time—they love where they live.


For more on SeaDoc Society and its upcoming 20th anniversary event, visit its website. Additional information, videos and more about The Salish Sea: Jewel of the Pacific Northwest is available on a dedicated SeaDoc page. The book available for purchase online and at independent bookstores including San Juan Islands spots like Darvill’s Books (Eastsound, Orcas Island) and Griffin Bay Bookstore (Friday Harbor, San Juan Island), where it's been a best-seller.

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