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Return To The Salish Sea: SeaDoc Society Senior Scientist Joe Gaydos

Bellamy Pailthorp
Joe Gaydos admiring the skull of a Steller Sea Lion in his office at SeaDoc on Orcas Island.

The Salish Sea is home to more than three thousand species. Among them are 253 fish, 172 birds, 38 mammals and two reptiles.

“Believe it or not we’re actually within the range for green and Pacific leatherback sea turtles,” Joe Gaydos tells me in an email. 

A large-animal vet by training, Gaydos is the Science Director at the SeaDoc Societyon Orcas Island and a wealth of information about the flora and fauna of the region. He co-authored of a glossy coffee table book called The Salish Sea – Jewel of the Pacific, which contains those statistics along with hundreds of color photos.

SeaDoc’s mission is to protect the health of marine wildlife and their ecosystems in the Salish Sea through science and education. An example from earlier this year is an ongoing survey of sea lions that get ensnared in plastic trash, which can kill them.

“This is something we’re seeing more and more now,” Gaydos said. “They’re curious, so they’ll swim through, they’ll pick up a plastic packing strap around their neck. It’s not a problem and they’ll go off. But then as days and weeks go by, they’ll actually grow into this thing, and it will slowly strangle them.”

I rode with him in the SeaDoc’s research vessel, the Molly B, through an area called Whale Rocks, off the South end of Lopez Island in the San Juan archipelago. As we talk, we see 13 sea lions on one side of the rocks. They’re big.  

“They are monsters. I call them the grizzlies of the Salish Sea,” Gaydos says. “But the reality is a big grizzly bear may be 800 pounds. One of these big guys can be close to 2,000 lbs at this time of year.”

Gaydos says as tragic and gruesome as the entanglements are, they’re actually less of a problem than many other issues in the Salish Sea.

He says maybe one percent of the population is strangled, and their population is actually growing. But calling attention to the problem is a good way to educate the public about the hazards of plastic trash.

“The fact that it’s our trash that’s around them, that’s an animal welfare concern and that’s what inspires people to want to make a difference because you see actually you’re impacting the individual. It’s something that we did,” he says.  

He wants people to see that they can make a difference, with their choices, every day.

“I think a lot of times we feel like we’re not empowered. But really, by every action that we make in the day, we affect the ocean, we affect the things that we love,” he says.

To see more photos and read more, visit our Return To The Salish Sea website.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to