If you cover the waterfront the way Chris Dunagan does, you have to expect a fair amount of smells. There’s the fresh, tangy scent of estuary and the mild musk of beach wrack. There’s the stench of rotting shellfish during the great Oyster Rescue of 2010, and the outsized rot of a beached gray whale. Dunagan, 60, has documented a lot of beached whales, although the numbers are hard to nail down.

Counting just grays, not killer whales or humpbacks or dead whale reports over the phone, he says, “I’ve probably gone out to 20.”

Dunagan (biochemistry ’74, ’75 communications) has been the environmental reporter for the Kitsap Sun for 26 years. In a world of shrinking newsrooms and thinly stretched reporting staffs, he soldiers on as an old-school beat reporter, covering meetings, tapping sources, and ranging about in jeans, thick boots, and a Nissan Frontier. Through the years, he’s written close to 10,000 stories.That’s millions of words and nearly a story a day, including Sunday features, the occasional series, and, more recently, posts to the Watching Our Water Ways blog.

Chris Dunagan
Chris Dunagan at the Theler Wetlands (Staff photo)

Few areas lend themselves to such a beat as well as Kitsap County and the upper reaches of the Olympic Peninsula. It’s beautiful, with thick salmon runs, bald eagles, wandering orcas, and hundreds of miles of Puget Sound shoreline, from the bustling docks of Bremerton to the backwaters of Hood Canal. It also has population pressures and pollution, from the anoxic dead zone in Hood Canal to a legacy of toxics in various aging Navy sites.

“It’s hard to find a better place to cover the environment than here,” says Dunagan as he steers his Frontier along the wooded two-lane roads between Bremerton and Belfair. Most every turn has one of his thousands of stories and signs of the slowly evolving changes one only notices through years of observing and documenting.

At the Kitsap Golf and Country Club, he navigates thickets of blackberries to reach Chico Creek. Dunagan remembers seeing spawning salmon struggle up the creek, beating themselves up as they encountered forbidding falls and concrete culverts. Various restoration efforts have since widened the stream and evened out the streambed with rocks and logs.

“This is the most productive chum salmon stream in the county,” he says.

In 1997, the stream’s prolific run drew 19 orcas into Dye’s Inlet for the first time in 40 years. They arrived in the third week of October, a fact Dunagan remembers because, he says, “I’ve written about it so many times.”

Over the next four weeks, the orcas drew thousands of onlookers to the shore and as many as 500 boats. Researchers noticed they seemed afraid of the Warren Avenue bridge, which they had to pass under to get out of the inlet. The orcas stayed 30 days and appeared to be losing weight when at last they made their way out with the help of researchers encouraging them by slapping the water.

“It was my entry into killer whales,” says Dunagan, who spent the month explaining orca matrilines, dialects, and social structure. He’s still doing it. Just this morning, he wrote about the birth of J-49, the latest member of Puget Sound’s resident orcas.

Driving toward Hood Canal, Dunagan explains how he set out to be a scientist, studying biochemistry at WSU and even getting a degree in it. But he saw the field taking him down an ever-narrower course of study, while he preferred “science in general.”

He stayed at WSU another year to get a bachelor’s in journalism. With the help of Professor Charles O. Cole, he landed a job at the Idaho Falls Post-Register. His beat included Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and a swath of national forests.

He went to the Sun in 1977, covering government for five years and working on a three-person investigative team before being named the paper’s first environmental reporter.

More than a quarter century later, he says, “I’m the only one that they’ve ever had.”

At the aptly named Scenic Beach, he takes in the expanse of Hood Canal, the doglegged fjord reaching around the western backside of Puget Sound. It is wide, wooded, and wild looking, but in 2010 Dunagan got reports from local residents that the USS Port Royal, a 567-foot guided-missile cruiser, had been making high-speed turns, producing a series of waves that pushed oysters well above the tide line. State shellfish biologists organized a rescue party, but not before thousands of oysters died and, naturally, festered.

Dunagan, meanwhile, pressed the Navy into acknowledging the Port Royal’s role. Two months later, it blamed the incident on a “confluence of factors” but said it had taken steps to prevent a recurrence.

“They ended up kind of apologizing,” Dunagan says.

He cuts south across the peninsula to Belfair and the eastern hook of Hood Canal’s Great Bend. In 1991, Dunagan wrote the bulk of the series, “Hood Canal, Splendor at Risk,” which asked, “Will people be able to rescue an ecosystem on the brink of destruction?” It was thorough, documenting logging, fishing, wetlands, development, and more. Released later as a book, it won the Governor’s Writers Award, now called the Washington State Book Award.

At the time, Dunagan had heard about low oxygen levels in the canal, “but I didn’t tie it into a major problem.” Then came fish kills, lower oxygen levels, a major study, and the discovery of a “dead zone” with so little oxygen, it couldn’t support fish.

Dunagan took to going online to check oxygen levels at various buoys and conferring with Jan Newton, a University of Washington researcher and expert on the dead zone.

“There was one year I called her and she said, ‘Looks like a fish kill is coming,’” he says. “The next day, dead fish were reported.”

Dunagan has since covered efforts to get state and federal funds to build a sewage treatment plant in Belfair, replacing the septic systems that get much of the blame for raising nitrogen levels in the dead zone. He also rides herd on the Puget Sound Partnership, the industrious public-private effort to restore the sound.

More than most anyone in the state, Dunagan has borne witness to this and smaller efforts, including the restoration of the lush, boardwalked Theler wetland in what he calls “Belfair’s soggy backyard.”

Just up from the wetland sits the Theler Community Center, where one can look up at the suspended, 27-foot skeleton of a gray whale. Dunagan wrote about the whale, a two-year-old juvenile, when it beached. Volunteers buried the carcass to let it decompose and, in theory, leave just bones.

As with so many other natural events in his vast neighborhood, Dunagan was there to bear witness.

“When they dug it up, it smelled really bad,” he says. “It didn’t clean up as well as they wanted it to.”

On the web

Chris Dunagan’s blog, Watching Our Water Ways