Nearly everyone who deals in scientific information learns to
read simple charts and graphs to help visualize the data. As a
reporter, I’m often looking for the right graph to bring greater
meaning to a story. In a similar way, some people have been
experimenting with rendering data into sound, and some of the more
musically inclined folks have been creating songs with notes and
As with graphs, one must understand the conceptual framework
before the meaning becomes clear. On the other hand, anyone can
simply enjoy the music — or at least be amused that the notes
themselves are somehow transformed from observations of the real
The first video on this page, titled “Bloom,” contains a “song”
derived from microorganisms found in the English Channel. The
melody depicts the relative abundance of eight different types of
organisms found in the water as conditions change over time. Peter
Larsen, a biologist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne
National Laboratory in Illinois, explains how he created the
composition to Steve Curwood, host of the radio program “Living on
To celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service, 50
poets are writing about a park in each of the 50 states. Some poems
speak of the splendor of nature, while others focus on the
struggles of human beings. All of them make emotional connections
The poetry was commissioned by the Academy of American Poets as
part of “Imagine
Your Parks,” a grant program from the National Endowment for
the Arts in partnership with the National Park Service. The idea is
to use the arts to connect people with the memorable places within
the national parks.
Each Thursday this fall, five poems are being published on a
special website, “Imagine
Our Parks with Poems.” As of last week, half of the poems have
been published. The one for Washington state is still to come. The
following is a sampling of the poetry. For more information, click
on the name of the poem or the author.
After leaving the staff of the Kitsap Sun, I was profoundly
thrilled and honored this year to have my environmental reporting
career recognized by two organizations that I greatly respect.
The two awards got me to thinking about the role that
environmental reporters can play in bridging the gap between
scientists studying the Puget Sound ecosystem and residents wishing
to protect this beloved place.
Conservancy, which plays a central role in acquiring and
protecting vital ecosystems on the Kitsap Peninsula, chose to honor
me with its Conservationist of the Year Award. The award is
especially humbling, because I see myself as a storyteller, not a
conservationist. But I was reminded that stories can help bring
people together to accomplish great things. One major project that
involves GPC and its many partners is the Kitsap Forest and Bay
Project, a major land-acquisition effort in North Kitsap.
When I attended GPC’s annual fund-raising dinner in April, it
felt like some sort of reunion. People I had known for years from
all sorts of organizations and agencies came up to shake my hand.
Some I knew very well. For nearly everyone, I could look back over
more than 35 years of reporting and recall their connection to one
or more environmental stories. It was a bit overwhelming.
The second award, from the SeaDoc Society, was equally
satisfying, since it recognized my work across the Puget Sound
region. The Octopus Award acknowledges groups and individuals
outside SeaDoc who have advanced the organization’s goal of
protecting the health of marine wildlife.
SeaDoc’s director and chief scientist, Dr. Joe Gaydos, a
veterinarian, has a rare ability. He not only conducts research
with a precision required to advance science, but he also
communicates general scientific knowledge in ways we can all
understand. I cannot count the times I’ve asked Joe to help me put
some ecological issue into perspective.
Joe teamed up recently with author Audrey DeLella Benedict to
write an informative and entertaining book about the inland
waterway that extends from Olympia, Wash., to Campbell River, B.C.,
including Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia. The title is
“The Salish Sea: Jewel of the Pacific Northwest.”
Unlike my experience at the GPC dinner, I knew only a handful of
people at SeaDoc’s annual fund-raising auction on Orcas Island two
weeks ago. I was able to become acquainted with many wonderful
people who seemed interested in all aspects of the Puget Sound
ecosystem. I was SeaDoc’s guest for the entire weekend, which
turned into a much-needed mini-vacation. It was the first time I’ve
been able to get away this year.
For whatever success I’ve had in my career, I owe a debt to all
the scientists willing to give their time to help me understand
their research. Science is a journey of discovery, and I’ve been
privileged to hitchhike with all sorts of researchers on their way
to understanding how the world works.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the teaching of science
and the need to encourage future researchers. Although I have a
degree in biochemistry, I’ve never worked as a scientist — unless
you count the year I toiled as a lab assistant growing tomato
plants. It was a research project designed to figure out how the
plants protect themselves from damaging insects.
I grew up believing that science was a particular set of facts
that explained the workings of nature. For the longest time, I
failed to see that the most important thing about science was
formulating the right questions about things we don’t know. Science
teachers should, of course, convey what is known, but I believe
they should also lead their students to the edge of the unknown,
revealing some of the questions that scientists are attempting to
answer right now.
That is what much of my reporting on Puget Sound has been about.
We’ve known for years that the health of the waterway is in
decline. It has been rewarding to help people understand why things
have been going wrong and what can be done to reverse the downward
trends. While there is much work to do, we’re at a point where we
can expect Puget Sound residents to limit their damage to the
ecosystem and become part of the restoration effort.
Finally, I have some advice for science reporters and scientists
alike. I feel like I’ve been lucky to be able to connect well with
researchers, though I’ve heard it said that the relationship
between reporters and scientists can be rough at times.
I’ve known reporters who are more interested in getting a scoop
than in learning, more interested in getting to some perceived
conclusion than in understanding the whys and hows. I’ve also known
scientists who are convinced that their research is too complex for
reporters to grasp, not to mention write about accurately.
For myself, it has always worked to follow my curiosity wherever
it takes me. Gathering far more information than I need for today’s
story, I find that this wandering gives me a better understanding
of the big picture while identifying future stories. Thanks to
those who have tolerated my detailed questioning.
Scientists also can take steps to make sure they are well
understood. Spell out key points for reporters, go over the
essential elements more than once, and even put information in
writing if a reporter seems to need some extra help.
When this kind of collaboration is successful, the result is a
story that captures the imagination, provides accurate information
and sometimes even changes the way people see the world.
The title of the book “War of the Whales” comes from the
“cultural war” between the Navy, which is primarily interested in
national security, and environmental advocates trying to protect
whales, according to author Joshua Horwitz.
“You have these two groups that care about the whales but for
different reasons,” Josh told me in a telephone interview. “One
group is trying to save the whales; the other is trying to get a
leg up on the Cold War.”
As I described yesterday in
Water Ways, “War of the Whales” is really several stories woven
into an exquisitely detailed narrative. I found the biography of
Ken Balcomb, who served in the Navy, especially compelling within
the full context of the Navy’s involvement with marine mammals.
Horwitz was successful in interviewing retired Navy officers,
who explained anti-submarine warfare and put the Navy’s viewpoint
“I have a lot of respect for the Navy,” he said. “None of these
guys are villains. This is a totally different story from
‘Blackfish.’ The Navy is a lot more complicated.”
While SeaWorld, the subject of Blackfish, and other aquariums
exploit marine mammals for commercial purposes, the Navy has our
national interest at heart, Josh said, adding that some Navy
officials failed to understand the full implications of the harm
they were doing.
“They hate to see their reputation sullied as good stewards of
the environment,” he noted. “They do care, and it almost tears them
up that they have gotten a black eye.”
Through a series of lawsuits, the Navy was forced to confront
the effects of its testing and training exercises with sonar, Josh
“I think the Navy has come a long way on what they do on ranges
on our coasts,” he said. “They are taking the process much more
seriously now. But they still aren’t doing that on the foreign
New lawsuits have been filed by NRDC based on potential impacts
to marine mammals, as revealed in a series of environmental impact
statements dealing with the effects of Navy training.
“I really do feel that it is important to keep the pressure on
the Navy and the government on all fronts,” Josh said. “There is a
limit to what the courts can do. And there are enough good actors
inside the Navy.”
One lawsuit, which Horwitz followed closely in “War of the
Whales,” focused on violations of environmental and administrative
law — until the Navy pulled out its “national security card.” The
U.S. Supreme Court seemed reluctant to put a hard edge on its
ruling, thus allowing uncertain security threats to trump potential
harm to marine life.
Josh contends that responsible parties from all sides should sit
down together and work out reasonable procedures for Navy training.
They should include exclusionary zones for the deployment of sonar
and live bombing in areas where whales go, at least during times
when whales are likely to be there.
More could be done with computer simulations to train Navy
personnel, he said. The other armed services are doing much more in
terms of simulating and responding to conditions that may be
encountered in real life.
“I have heard from well-placed people in the Navy that there is
room for vastly increasing the amount of simulation training,” he
“We know you can’t land an aircraft on a carrier (with
simulation), but if you can reduce the amount of live training, it
would be a win for everybody,” he added.
Simulations would not only reduce the impact on the marine
ecosystem, it would reduce the Navy’s cost of training, its use of
energy and its overall carbon footprint.
One thing is for sure, he said. Government oversight into the
Navy’s operations is nothing like the oversight into private
business. The National Marine Fisheries Service is so outgunned by
the Navy in terms of “political muscle” that the agency is
relegated to approving practically anything the Navy wants to do.
“I hope that comes through in the book,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Navy has developed the technology that could help
quiet commercial ships and reduce the noise and stress on marine
life throughout the world, he said.
“The Navy could take the lead and wear the white hat and save
the ocean from noise pollution,” Josh told me. “When you mitigate
for noise, the pollution goes away. It’s not like plastic pollution
that will still be there for a very long time.”
At the start, Horwitz was not sure what kind of story would
develop. It began with a meeting with Joel Reynolds, the lead
attorney for NRDC. At the time, Josh had just taken his 13-year-old
daughter on a whale-watching trip to Baja, Mexico. Like many of us,
he got sucked into one whale story after another, and he came to
learn about the Navy’s long and complicated relationship with
Horwitz has been involved in the publishing industry since the
1990s. He calls himself a kind of “midwife” for new books, which
involves putting writers together with characters who have a great
story to tell. He initially planned to “package” the story of the
whales by working with a professional journalist, but his wife
encouraged him to forge his passion into a book of his own.
Josh had co-written a handful of books in his life, including
some children’s books, after he graduated from film school at New
York University. But this was the first time he had tackled a
project with the breadth and depth of the story that became “War of
the Whales.” The project took seven years to research, write and
craft into a full-length, hard-bound book. Now, a paperback version
is in the works.
During the early part of the project, Josh continued part-time
with his publishing business. Over the final two years or so, he
devoted his full effort into the writing and follow-up research. To
pay the bills, he supplemented his publisher’s advance with money
raised through The Ocean Foundation.
By the time the writing was done, several editors who originally
expressed interest in the book were no longer in the business, he
said. As luck would have it, one interested editor had risen in the
ranks to publisher and was able to help him complete the project
and get the book into print.
Josh and his wife, Ericka Markman, live in Washington, D.C.,
with their three daughters, ages 20, 18 and 13.
In the book “War of the Whales,” author Joshua Horwitz reveals,
in exquisite detail, how Ken Balcomb played a central role in
showing how Navy sonar was killing and injuring whales around the
Ken, who we know as the dean of orca research in Puget Sound,
has not been alone, of course, in the quest to get the Navy to
better protect marine mammals. Horwitz introduces us to a variety
of people, each with his or her own interest in saving the
Frankly, I was surprised at how much I learned from the book,
given that I have been covering these same issues as a reporter for
many years. What really gained my admiration for Horwitz was how he
was able to weave scientific and historical aspects of the story
into a gripping tale that reads like a detective thriller.
I consider this book to be several stories woven into one.
First, there are the personal biographies of two key players in
this conflict with the Navy. The lives of Ken Balcomb, of the
Center for Whale Research, and Joel Reynolds, of the Natural
Resources Defense Council, became intertwined with each other after
the NRDC sued the Navy over its use of sonar around whales.
Next, we are given the history of the Navy’s sonar technology,
developed to track stealthy submarines. We meet many of the Navy
officials involved, including some who became emotionally involved
with marine mammals, flipping to the other side, as Horwitz
The Navy has long controlled much of the research involving
marine mammals — the original models for sonar. At times, whales
and dolphins were even trained as military combatants, with mixed
Last, but not least, we are shown the legal arguments related to
environmental law versus the need for national security. As a
result, we see how the Navy has become more open today about the
risks to whales from its testing and training procedures.
Horwitz paints intimate portraits of many of the characters,
especially Balcomb, the biologist, and Reynolds, the lawyer. He
sees the pair coming together from different backgrounds and
uniting in their effort to protect the whales against the Navy’s
single-minded approach to national security.
“Ken was such an extraordinary character,” Horwitz told me in a
telephone interview. “He was a reluctant activist. Activism wasn’t
The story begins in the Bahamas, where Balcomb was doing
research when a mass stranding of beaked whales took place,
practically at his doorstep. Navy sonar had been suspected of
killing whales in other areas of the world, but Balcomb was able to
secure fresh tissues — essential evidence to understand how their
injuries were caused by sound waves. Balcomb also observed that the
Navy was conducting exercises in the Bahamas at the same time, and
he made the connection to the dead whales.
From there, other researchers and policy officials became
involved, but Balcomb kept pushing to keep the incident from being
swept under the rug.
“Ken’s investment was immediate,” Horwitz explained. “One night
the Navy just plowed through and decimated this population of
We learn from the book about Ken’s serendipitous life. As a
young biologist, he collected whale lungs for research by going to
a commercial whaling station still operating in California. He
later signed onto a research crew as a dishwasher, but his skills
with a shotgun earned him the lead job of tagging whales.
Balcomb joined the Navy during the Vietnam War and became a
pilot. A series of circumstances led him into Fleet Sonar School
and the Navy’s highly secretive Sound Surveillance System, or
SOSUS. At the same time, his compatriots in graduate school became
some of the top marine mammal experts for the Navy and the National
Marine Fisheries Service. His later interactions with these folks
revealed something about their past and present positions in
Horwitz ties all these pieces of the story together in a
compelling narrative that kept offering me new and surprising
tidbits of information. It took the author seven years to complete
“He kept asking over and over the same questions,” said Ken,
somewhat amused when I asked him about it. “I didn’t know if he had
confused notes or what.”
Horwitz was seeking an extraordinary level of precision and
accuracy, so that his telling of this true and controversial story
could not be assailed.
Balcomb said he could find no errors, except for the conscious
decision by Horowitz and his editors to describe two overflights by
Balcomb in the Bahamas as a single event.
Most surprising of all was the account from Navy officials,
whose story about underwater warfare has rarely been told, except
perhaps in novels by Tom Clancy and others. Horwitz said
active-duty military officials were no help to him, but he got to
know retired Admiral Dick Pittenger, who opened doors to other
“He (Pittenger) was a total career Navy guy, but he was
skeptical about the way the Navy was handling some of these
matters,” Horwitz said, noting that the admiral spent days helping
him understand anti-submarine warfare.
Pittenger wanted the story told right, and he must have been
satisfied with the result, since he offered this comment in
promotional materials for the book:
“‘War of the Whales’ is an important book about a major
post-Cold War problem: the often conflicting goals of national
security and environmental protection. The author presents this
very complex and multidimensional story with great clarity.
“I’m certain that no one who has been involved with this issue
will agree with everything in this book (I don’t). But the topic
is, by its nature, so emotionally charged and controversial that I
doubt anyone can read it without a strong personal response. The
importance of this book is that it tells the ‘inside’ story to the
wide reading public in a compelling way.”
In my mind, Horwitz did a remarkable job of capturing the
relevant facts for this complicated story. He then seamlessly
joined the pieces together into a coherent and dramatic story — one
especially important to those of us living in an area where the
Navy maintains a strong presence among an abundance of marine
Check back to “Watching Our Water Ways” tomorrow, when I will
describe more of Josh Horowitz’s personal views about his book and
what he learned along the way.
I wish to thank everyone who sent their congratulations,
appreciation and good wishes to me over the past week since I
announced that I’ll be starting down a new career path in
environmental reporting. See
Water Ways, Oct. 17.
I’m still in transition, and I expect that it will be about
three weeks before I rev up this blog to a new level, with more
original reporting — like
my interview Monday with Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale
Research, who talked about the discouraging loss of the newest orca
calf born to the Southern Resident pods.
If you’re not a subscriber to this blog, you may want to wait
and see if you like the change. On the other hand, you won’t get
any junk email by subscribing. All you’ll get is an email with a
paragraph of text when I write something new — an email easily
deleted if you’re not interested. To subscribe to email (or RSS)
click on the appropriate box in the right column. If you have any
trouble or would just like to contact me directly, my new email is
While this Water Ways blog will bring you more discussions of
new ideas and reflections about ongoing environmental issues, my
other goal is to write some in-depth stories for the Kitsap Sun and
potentially other publications. I will be completing the series
Pulse of Puget Sound” in November and December.
Although I officially accepted an early-retirement package, I’ve
avoided the “r” word, as noted by the Kitsap Sun’s editor, David
Nelson, in a piece that ran in
Sunday’s edition. Thank you, David, for your strong and ongoing
By David Nelson, Editor, Kitsap Sun
I promised Chris Dunagan we wouldn’t use the “r-word” when
telling readers about the transition he’s entering in his career.
Chris, as he’sexplained in his column, is stepping away from the
daily grind of the newsroom. But he’s not losing the passion he has
for environmental journalism, or the significant role he’s played
and will continue to play in our mission of providing local
So I won’t use that word. But I’m going to take a moment to
recognize a desk in a corner of a newsroom cubicle, suddenly empty
after so many years, piled high with scientific studies, legal
documents, tip sheets and notebooks overflowing with ideas. And
then there are the shelves in our newsroom library, stacked with
books on salmon and stormwater studies, and the files that fill a
row of cabinets labeled with the same name: Dunagan. Most of these,
I’m afraid, are retiring from our cluttered office.
But those stacks are the signs of a career spent digging deeply
and seriously into a topic, and it’s a role Chris has performed
like no one else. He was the first environmental and land-use
reporter in the history of the Sun and three decades of work on
that topic has provided this community and the region with an
incredible resource. From early work that turned into a book that
was honored by the governor and state library, “Hood Canal:
Splendor at Risk,” to an intensive ongoing project that will
conclude this winter, “Taking the Pulse of the Puget Sound,” to his
fun annual guide to salmon stream watching, Chris’s ambition can
never be questioned.
There isn’t a reporter I know who spends more time researching
and detailing his ideas. Editors know what that can mean — a
Dunagan story may be proposed at a certain number of words, but
once he’s fleshed out every nook and cranny of a topic and
understands complicated matter inside and out, he’s going to ask
for a little more space in the paper. Even having cursed the
editing process myself occasionally when squeezed for print space,
I admire the perseverance, dedication and joy he has for his
topics, from orcas to neighborhood disputes over land development,
to the health of the waterways that are vital to our way of life in
the Puget Sound.
I’ll miss seeing Chris buried at that busy desk each day. But as
he mentions in his column, readers will still know what’s on his
mind and what he’s studying. He’ll continue having a byline into
the future, similarly to how longtime Sun writers like Chuck Stark,
Seabury Blair, Travis Baker have remained part of our family while
also focused on other aspects of life or pursuing outside
And I remain committed to the Sun’s long-standing coverage of
the environment, both through Chris’s continued contribution and
our more recent development of outdoors coverage, which approaches
environmental and land use questions from another perspective. You
can plan on continuing to read about resource management, land
planning and the health of ecosystems in our pages and
Chris isn’t gone, he won’t be forgotten. But he is thanked for
an incredible contribution to this newsroom over more than three
decades and he leaves with the only r-word any reporter really
wants from his editor and readers: respect, for both the stories
we’ve read and those to come.
UPDATE, June 11, 2014
Jeromy Sullivan, chairman of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, wrote
a tribute to Billy Frank that is worth reading. Jeromy mentions
three admirable attributes of Billy Frank and gives examples of
each. They are words to live by.
Stand up for what you believe in … even when no one else
Treat people with respect even if you’re on opposite
It’s the big and small things that make your community a better
The affection and admiration expressed for Billy Frank Jr. has
been somewhat overwhelming in recent days. I thought it would be
nice to pull together some of the tributes — including the memorial
service — that talk about this man who was an irrepressible voice
for salmon recovery, environmental restoration and Native American
Billy, 83, a member of the Nisqually Tribe and chairman of the
Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, died last Monday, May 5, at
his home. As I said in
Water Ways last Tuesday, I believe Billy will remain an
An estimated 6,000 people attended his memorial service Sunday
at the Squaxin Island Tribe’s Skookum Creek Event Center, located
at Little Creek Casino Resort near Shelton.
The service was recorded by Squaxin Streams and posted on the
Livestream website, which is the video player on this page.
Billy Frank’s own words, “Nobody can replace my life,” speak of
the changes from one generation to the next. Billy knew as well as
anyone that we can’t go back, but he asked people to help determine
a better environmental future. Secretary
of State Legacy Project.
1. Billy's own words
Tributes, statements, news
William D. Ruckelshaus, former chairman of the Puget Sound
Partnership’s Leadership Council, of which Billy was a member.
Published in Crosscut, May 8.
Martha Kongsgaard, current chairwoman of the Puget Sound
Partnership’s Leadership Council. Published on the partnership’s
website, May 6.
I already miss Ron Ross, who was the inspiration for numerous
stories I wrote through the years. Ron died two weeks ago, on May
Every few months, Ron would call me with a questioning tone to
his voice. He would talk about some city, county or state policy or
regulation and tell me how it was working, or not working, and how
it was affecting him or someone else.
“How does this make any sense?” he would ask.
Many times, Ron would have the nut of an issue, which would pan
out into a story. Sometimes these stories involved property rights,
but Ron was never the kind of property-rights advocate who believed
a person should be able to do anything he wants with his property.
He just wanted government rules to make sense and work for the
majority of people.
It drove him crazy when a well-intentioned regulation caused
more problems than it solved. Ron was, if anything, a common-sense
kind of guy.
If the salmon couldn’t get upstream, he didn’t wait for all the
permits he was supposed to get, not while the salmon were waiting.
He just got out with some volunteers and moved the fish upstream —
not to a place of his choosing, but to exactly the place where they
were supposed to go. How could anyone argue with that?
This week, I’d like to bring you a couple of engaging pieces — a
podcast and a magazine article — both longer than what I usually
post for “Amusing Monday.”
Both include stories about octopuses. But what I love about both
of these is the human interaction. They also take me back about 35
years to a time when I was actively scuba diving all over Puget
In the podcast, the interviewer, Jeff Emptman, expresses a
curiosity about scuba diving in Puget Sound, and he is rewarded
with a vivid and accurate description by a janitor named John:
Jeff: “What’s that feeling like, dipping below
John: “In Puget Sound, the first feeling is,
‘Oh my god, it’s so freakin’ cold!’”
When 60 students from Central Kitsap High School took off in
double kayaks to look for jumping salmon, they had no idea how the
changing weather would make the trip more exciting.
Bill Wilson, who teaches environmental science, organized
Tuesday’s trip on Dyes Inlet near Silverdale. Lead guide Spring
Courtright of Olympic Outdoor Center shares the story in her
Reminder: Free stream tours from land are scheduled for
Saturday. See the story I wrote for
Tuesday’s Kitsap Sun.
By Spring Courtright Program Director, Olympic Outdoor Center
At 9 a.m. on election day, anyone peering through the fog at
Silverdale Waterfront Park would have seen 35 bright kayaks lined
up on the beach and 60 high school students preparing to
Central Kitsap High School environmental science students study
salmon in class, then are given the option to paddle with jumping
salmon on an annual Salmon Kayak Tour with the Olympic Outdoor
Center (OOC). For the last two years, 60 students have jumped on
This trip started about 10 years ago with about half that number
of students. I have been one of the lead guides for nearly all of
these tours. It’s always an adventure, but this year was one of the
more memorable trips because of the beautiful clouds and quick
change in weather. Continue reading →