Last year I had the pleasure of working on several commissions to be given as gifts for the holidays. One of my favourite things about commissions is hearing feedback from the recipient, and now I know it’s safe to share what I was working on. This particular 16 x 20 inch acrylic painting was for the client’s wife and was to feature her three favourite animals: a manatee, a dolphin, and a sea turtle. Here’s a look at the process from start to finish, including a shot of the framed piece in its happy home!
On April 15th this year I went whale watching for the first time. It was also my first visit to Monterey Bay, somewhere I’d longed to go for years and years. It lived up to my expectations and then some – although there were no orcas to be seen, I got to see several feeding humpback whales, an enormous pod of Risso’s dolphins, and a small but curious pod of long-beaked common dolphins. The latter is a species that can also be seen in my home waters in the southwest of England, but of course throughout my life it was always a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, so I was ecstatic to finally see them. They’re so small and quick and utterly charming; the pod made a beeline for the bow of the boat where I was crouching and were so close my lens was too long to get a good photo! Watching them erupt from the water (which in itself is so difficult to photograph) was so fantastic that I knew I had to paint it.
I really enjoyed working on my recent “Sharks!” piece, which allowed me to highlight a bunch of lesser-known species. I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that I want to keep doing these! As a cetacean nerd they were my obvious next choice, although I reduced the number of featured species and eventually decided to focus on just odontocetes, or toothed whales, for now. (I originally started this one with some mysticetes as well, but because I wanted to illustrate relative size differences, the proportions just wouldn’t work. Mysticetes shall get their own one!) My idea with these is to showcase the diversity of shape. When it comes to toothed whales, especially as you get into the families, there are a lot of very similar shapes that didn’t provide a silhouette distinct enough among the other species I chose – hence the smaller number on here. I also made a conscious decision to leave off the members of Physeteroidea, whose common names may not be appropriate to spread across a t-shirt. Know that they are wonderful animals, though!
The species featured here:
Bottlenose dolphin Tursiops truncatus
Beluga whale Delphinapterus leucas
Commerson’s dolphin Cephalorhynchus commersonii
Harbour porpoise Phocoena phocoena
Long-snouted spinner dolphin Stenella longirostris
Amazon river dolphin Inia geoffrensis
Orca Orcinus orca
Dall’s porpoise Phocoenoides dalli
Narwhal Monodon monoceros
Southern right whale dolphin (most confusing name ever?) Lissodelphis peronii
Long-finned pilot whale Globicephala melas
Cuvier’s beaked whale Ziphius cavirostris
Like the shark version, this is available as a print as well as on t-shirts, mugs, and phone cases!
I would be lying if I told you that this painting hadn’t haunted me. Not in the sense that gangs of bottlenose dolphins were chasing me in my nightmares (honestly a rather terrifying scenario), but because I actually started this about three years ago. And then I didn’t like it, so I painted over it and tried again. Then I tried again. Then I put it aside for a few months. And then picked it up again, painted over it, and tried again… you get the idea. Eventually it became my nemesis; when I would work on something else it would be there in the corner of the room, staring at me. I had to defeat it.
Bottlenose dolphins don’t seem to have the most interesting physical characteristics at first glance; certainly not as striking as orcas (sorry, I’m biased) or other members of their oceanic dolphin family (Pacific white-sided and hourglass dolphins spring to mind), but I’ve always been fond of those odd little lines on their melon and the subtle countershading. And it’s not like the general public doesn’t go crazy over the bottlenose – the species is synonymous with the very word “dolphin”. (Seriously, take a look… how many non-bottlenose can you see?) Because of the world’s unwavering fascination with them – whether it’s because of their intelligence or magical sparkly moon powers – bottlenose dolphins often get waved off as being overrated. While I’ll be among the first to admit that they’re not my favourite marine species ever ever ever, it’s important to recognise that animals like bottlenose dolphins can be key to effective conservation efforts.
Contaminants like PCBs and DDT are really good at accumulating in animal fats. What are marine mammals like dolphins completely covered in? Oh, yeah – blubber. This means that as these apex predators eat things and be generally good at what they’ve evolved to do, pollutants that originate in everyday things we use like pesticides and fertilisers actually build up in their bodies (a process known as bioaccumulation). And how do these pollutants end up in the dolphins’ food, exactly? Through runoff and industrial waste that gets pumped into marine ecosystems, which begin to turn up in organisms on the lower levels of the food chain as well as cause cause harmful algae blooms. Florida’s troubled Indian River Lagoon is a prime example of this, and its dolphins are part of an important collaborative research project – Health and Environmental Risk Assessments (HERA) – that looks at their health status. The dolphins are sentinels: their health, or lack of, tells us what’s going on. The results can then be used for action.
So why is it that I said dolphins can be key? Well, people love them. And if people love dolphins and want to help them have a healthy environment to live in, a lot more than just dolphins can reap the benefits (we like a healthy environment too, don’t we?). In the end, it’s good that these animals are popular – we just need a little less of the supernatural and a lot more of the educational.