Ryan Dicks has a knack for making people on his boat feel like the world has stopped turning. When he invited two of The News Tribune’s reporters on a photography excursion one cloudless June afternoon, he motored out halfway between Browns and Defiance points before spotting some breaching porpoises and turning the engine off. It seemed like the boat went from 60 miles per hour to zero in a few seconds. Suddenly, the earth felt still.
“It’s pretty epic out on the water,” Dicks told the reporters. “One of the surprising things is, except on a weekend that’s like 80 degrees, there just aren’t any boats out here.”
For the last three years, Dicks, 47, has been using his boat and his black Nikon digital camera to capture photos of animals living in the Tacoma waterways. His just-shy-of 800 Twitter followers admire the photos attached to his near-daily posts, and thousands have enjoyed a few of his shots that have been featured on the city of Tacoma’s Instagram page.
“People don’t think Tacoma has whales, they don’t think Tacoma has bald eagles,” Dicks said. “But they’re here. And part of, if there is a message, the message is that we’ve got these really amazing things here. So let’s take care of them.”
While Dicks aimed his camera at the porpoises, he reflected on the solitude one can find on top of the water. Commencement Bay makes up over 12 of Tacoma’s 62.4 square miles. That afternoon, there were five other boats in the bay aside from those in the Port of Tacoma. Dicks guessed that, at that moment, there might be nowhere in the city with a smaller population density.
“It’s hard to find open space where you can just sort of be alone,” Dicks said while his camera shuttered. “Like, this is a pretty cool spot to do it.”
Although Dicks was a tour guide that trip, he usually spends his photography time in solitude. Throughout the spring, summer and fall, he takes his boat, a small vessel with graying white leather seats, and his camera across the South Sound in search of wildlife.
Most days, Dicks starts his day job with the Pierce County Office of Sustainability around 6:30 a.m. in part to have more of the afternoon for marine photography explorations. He budgets time for an excursion on his boat two or three times a week; occasionally four times, when the Facebook Group Orca Network reports there are killer whales nearby.
“I think photography reminds me why I do the work I do,” Dicks said. “Why it’s important for these creatures to be here in the future.”
To Dicks, his time on the water also has positive repercussions in other aspects of his life, including how he interacts with his wife and two young sons.
“For me, photography is a distant third behind my family and my job,” Dicks said. “But this allows me to do the other things better in some ways, because it gives me just that feeling of being refreshed when I go home.”
An early love for the Sound
Dicks split his childhood between Washingtons. He spent school-years living in D.C. while his dad Norm Dicks, a former Congressperson who served Washington State’s sixth district for 36 years, worked on Capitol Hill. Ryan Dicks and his brother would spend time in Bremerton, Hood Canal and and Tacoma during their vacations. Escaping the sticky D.C. summers, he gradually developed an affinity for the South Sound.
“Spent a lot of time on the beach playing with crabs, fishing, doing all those kinds of things,” Ryan Dicks said. “It’s pretty great if you’re here for June, July and August.”
After graduating from Georgetown in the late 90s, he packed his life in his car and made a beeline for Tacoma. Dicks worked a few different jobs around western Washington before settling into his current Pierce County role, a sustainability manager and solid waste administrator, in 2009.
When the family boat, the boat Dicks steered that afternoon, became his a decade later, he began pursuing photography at a more serious level. Immediately, he loved the mobility it enabled him.
“One of my goals initially was to get a picture of a whale and the Tacoma Dome in the same picture,” he told his passengers. “It has kind of this urban thing where everyone went to see concerts as kids.”
Dicks accomplished that goal in April 2021, when a pod of Bigg’s orcas came through Commencement Bay. He snapped a shot and shared it with his Twitter followers and enthusiasts of his website, AirWaterLand.com. To Dicks, photos like that one have value that is not only aesthetic but also educational; he hopes that by showing orcas and humpbacks coming through South Sound’s passages, other seafarers will be more cognizant of marine life.
About a quarter-mile north of the beach, he stopped the boat along to point out a seal colony, purposefully placing it about 200 yards away from the animals. As Dicks adjusted his Nikon’s settings, a speed boat motored between him and the colony, maybe a couple dozen feet away from the closest seal. Washington state law prohibits boats from steering within 100 yards of sea mammals.
Dicks thought that even if the other boat’s captain saw the seals, he might have still disregarded their habitat.
“I think there’s a lot of education that needs to happen.” he said. “Especially about the whales. They’re here, and you gotta stay 200 to 300 yards, depending on the type of whale, away.”
He pulled out a multicolored flag attached to a few feet of thin PVC pipe. Over a white background, a whale tail overlapping a red and yellow circle makes up the center icon. The flag is part of an effort by Be Whale Wise, a partnership between Pacific Northwest government agencies and nonprofits, to help boaters communicate when there are whales close by.
In theory, captains would then adjust their sailing behavior to follow Washington State laws; boaters would try to stay at least 300 yards away from orcas and at least 400 if they are in front or behind a killer whale’s swimming path. In reality, Dicks said most people do not recognize the flag. When he has told other sailors what it means, some have interpreted his words as an invitation to get closer to the whales.
“They’d be like ‘Oh I wanna watch!’” Dicks said. “We’ll see about how to use the flag in the best way.”
The waterways less traveled
Around the tip of Defiance Point, away from all the beach goers, Dicks parked the boat a few yards outside a massive kelp forest. The lanky yellow-green stands of seaweed stretched miles in width and hundreds of feet in height, from the depths of the Sound to just below the surface.
Dicks told his his passengers the kelp is constantly absorbing carbon dioxide from the saltwater, in-turn lowering the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. There was a clear affection in his voice as he spoke about the plant.
“Someday, Metro Parks could have a kelp forest protection effort here,” he said. “There’s also people who are trying to farm it like aquaculture.”
As he was about to head back to the Point Defiance boat launch, one of the passengers noticed a brown shape, resembling driftwood, bobbing above and below the surface toward the shore. Dicks steered closer to the life-like object.
“It’s big enough, it almost looks like a bald eagle swimming,” he said.
Dicks slowed the boat and sprouted a grin. He could tell he was right.
“Sometimes they get in trying to get a fish and their wings can’t get out,” Dicks said. “He’s just swimming into the beach, I don’t think it’s a problem.”
The eagle’s swim stroke was laborious; it was restricted by an inability to get its limbs out of the water. After about a hundred yards, the bird made it to the shore and proceeded to feast on a salmon clenched in its talons.
In that moment, as his camera shuttered millisecond after millisecond, Dicks seemed relieved. It was as if he was grateful nature demonstrated something unusual for his boat guests, like he may have been embarrassed if the random wildlife South Sound had to offer that day stopped with porpoises and seals.
“We got you your bald eagle eating a salmon,” he told a passenger. “I’ve maybe only seen that three times in my life.”
Protecting the future
After recounting what just happened to a Gig Harbor tour boat, Dicks set a course back to the harbor. As he motored back, he spoke about his dad’s work, how former Rep. Dicks dedicated much of his time in D.C. to wildlife conservation. To Ryan Dicks, the restoration of Puget Sound is one of his dad’s greatest accomplishments.
While the son thought that enjoying some of the fruits of his dad’s labor is rewarding, he remained steadfast that it is more important to be mindful of the future than self-congratulatory about the past.
“I think he’s concerned about climate change like I am,” Dicks said as he steered toward the boat launch. “It’s all here now, which is an important thing. The thing we need to ask is what can we do to make sure it’s here in the future.”
“His generation was sort of the first that started to improve the environment, and there’s a lot of work to still be done.”
This story was originally published July 9, 2022 5:00 AM.