Great Barracuda - Sphyraena barracuda

Great Barracuda - Sphyraena barracuda

May 15, 2022

Hello, Blog

 Hello, Blog. It's been a while~!

To get you up to speed:

1) 2019: I finally broke free. YAY!!! I finalized and published two (count 'em TWO) books: Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes of Virginia, and Tunas and Billfishes of the World. According to my editor, no author that she knows of has ever published two books in the same year. Well, I'm Val Kells, and I've accomplished many feats that no one has before. 

2) 2020: Sold the house and moved everything Big job. (While I was working on my new Caribbean book, no less.) Below is the aftermath of the snow I dug out of to make room for electrical, plumbing, and and various other trucks that needed to get in to work on the house. "Snow" is a four-letter word in my world...

3) Moved to Freak Union, aka, Free Union (inside joke). Lovely place, but still too far from the ocean.

4) Finally got officially free. BIG YAY!!!! Best money I ever spent :) Freedom means: peace, happiness, quiet, calm, independence, tranquility (same as peace?), and safety. Ahhh... Oh yeah, Tunas and Billfishes book won the Smithsonian Science Achievement Award, and we we honored and awarded at the VA AFS meeting for VA Freshwater Fishes.

5) 2021: After traveling up and down the East Coast in search of my permanent home, I had an epiphany: Outer Banks. This made total sense. The OBX is familiar, wonderful, and I had fishy friends there. I got super lucky, landed an amazing home in Kill Devil Hills, and moved to a drop-dead gorgeous slice of sea-level heaven with great neighbors, quiet and calm, and a fantastic view of Kitty Hawk Bay from the Fish Cave. Yee Haw!

6) I continued working on A Field Guide to Coastal Fishes of Bermuda, Bahamas, and the Caribbean Sea while exploring and re-discovering new and old OBX haunts with new and old friends.

7) In the Fall of 2021, I was interviewed by the North Beach Sun and my illustrations wound up on the cover to boot. 

7) 2022: In March, gave a presentation at Jennette's Pier for the annual American Fisheries Society meeting:

    Then I wrapped up the Caribbean book, and sent it to my publisher. (That's 5 years of work in that little yellow box!)

    Two days after I'd sent the Caribbean book, my Encyclopedia proposal was approved by the JHUP board. I went under contract the following week, and began working on Encyclopedia of Marine Fishes of North America (another HUGE book, never been done before. Yes, I'm a bit insane, very driven and motivated, but really just fulfilling my destiny ;)
    In April, I fished for three days in the Ocracoke Invitational Surf Fishing Tournament. So much fun!

    And, I celebrated my 60th spin around the sun~!

    Plans are in place for our annual trip to Ocracoke in August.
    Car camping at Oregon Inlet and Frisco.
    And lots and lots of fishing and seining in between....

    Oh, yeah, all while working on the Encyclopedia....

There were many many other events in and between the above, but the sun is shining, the ocean is calling, so I'm loading up the Squid Mobile and heading to Oregon inlet.... Who knows what I'll find or who I'll meet. It's all good.



February 21, 2020

ATTENTION Artists! Protect your Rights!

I write this post to hopefully help other illustrators and artists protect their rights and avoid an excruciating, exhausting, stressful, and expensive divorce experience. I also hope to educate and enlighten illustrators and artists of all walks of life: sculptors, photographers, poets, wood workers, novelists, and jewelers alike. If it came out of your mind, and onto a canvas, a piece of paper, or a lump of clay, you are an artist, and you have rights. And your soon-to-be ex-spouse has rights, too, and which he or she might flex, unless you are protected.

Here therefore is a cold and harsh legal reality:

>>ARTWORK CREATED BEFORE MARRIAGE IS SEPARATE PROPERTY. Artwork created before marriage is Separate and belongs to artist alone, and it's value and royalties are not subject to division in a divorce.
>>ARTWORK CREATED DURING MARRIAGE IS JOINT PROPERTY. Artwork created during marriage is considered Joint Property, and it's value and royalties are considered as assets owned by both parties and are subject to division by both the artist AND the artist's spouse in a divorce. Royalties may be subject to division, even going forward, in perpetuity. (Suck!)

You may think or you may have thought that everything you created is yours alone during your marriage. Nope. You may own the copyright (if you haven't sold it or bequeathed it), but the physical or intangible piece of art created during marriage is jointly owned under the law (depending on your state). This may not make sense, and it may not seem fair, but unfortunately, this is the truth.

To re-iterate and expand on this: You may have created the paintings. They all may have come out of your mind, hands, eyes, and your body. You may have pushed the paint, alone. You may have done the research, alone. You  may have done the marketing, alone. You may have wrote and/or illustrated your books....alone! You may have taken a blank canvas or piece of paper and created a piece of art each day...on...your...own. But, should you face divorce, you may find yourself asking your attorney: "How in the world can they claim half of the worth of my work if I was the only one to pick up a paint brush? I did all the work. I pushed the paint. I invested my time and energy. How is this possible?"

You may have devoted 30+ years to your career. You may have created hundreds, or thousands, of pieces of art. You may love your job and find it beyond fulfilling and might be very important to you.

None of that will matter. You will likely be told, "the law is not emotional, the law is the law." The law does not distinguish between a painting or an afghan. In the face of the law, any work of art created during a marriage is considered joint property and the opposing could demand half of the art's worth and half of any royalties. Period. (To prevent this scenario, please see Part 2). Praying this won't happen doesn't prevent it from happening. Divorce has a way of bringing out the pitbull in certain people: they just get mean and nasty, and they will not care about your feelings or your future. So, brace yourself for the worst.

Your worst nightmare might come true.... the opposing party and their lawyer might do exactly that: go after what you thought was yours alone. Why? Your art has value. Adding value to your assets could whittle down any settlement by using the value of your art against you.

This reality might gut you. But, you will likely be told to comply to all requests by the opposing, otherwise a judge (if it comes to that) might see you as "un-cooperative" and that would not bode well.

This said, here now are warnings to every artist and illustrator out there. Please read carefully. This list might scare you into taking preventative measures, and therefore save you a lot of money, heartache, and pain.

1. You might have to make all of your joint artwork available for appraisal.
2. You might have to endure an appraisal by an unqualified AOA appraiser.
3. You might have to hand over copies of your contracts––even if they are out-of-date and protected by confidentiality clauses––which, if they don't have confidentiality clauses, will have to be protected by the court.
4. You might have to provide any and all correspondences, emails, and invoices.
5. Your spouse might lift information and/or copies of your stock list, and/or your for sale list, from your website to use as a spring board of valuation of your work.
6. The unqualified appraiser might use a blog (a BLOG) as basis of valuation of your prints made from your art, even if the blog art looks nothing like yours.
7. The appraiser might also used other illustrators who's work is not in any way similar to your work to valuate your work, without even talking to the other illustrators.
8. You might have to endure a financial evaluation (which you will have to pay for).
9. You might have to hire your separate appraiser, or a qualified AAA, ASA, ISA appraiser to disqualify the unqualified appraisal (which you will have to pay for).
10. You might have to give up half of the value of your artwork, and half of any royalties you earn from that artwork.

Sound like fun? NOT!
That said, you will survive the divorce experience. You will get on the other side of divorce, re-create your life, pick up where you left off, and create new art!! That will be YOURS!
Coming soon in Part 2 of this post: How to Protect Yourself, and your Art.

Peace! - Val

February 12, 2020

It's Raining Fishes in the Fish Cave!

I'm swamped. And it's all good.
In short, 2019 was one for the books...!
  • I moved myself and my sons out of our home of 28 years (all by myself!) 
  • I relocated to the mountains outside of Free Union, VA
  • I completed all of the edits for two new books
  • I illustrated the Tidepool critters of California
  • I got divorced (YAY!!!!)
  • My sons and I had a great fishy vacation on Ocracoke
  • I completed a new job for the Maymont Center in Richmond
  • I partnered with the Fish Print Shop CLICK HERE
  • I published two new books: "A Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes of Virginia" CLICK HERE and "Tunas and Billfishes of the World" CLICK HERE.
  • And, I launched a curated collection of prints on Etsy CLICK HERE.
Beginning in September, my VA co-authors and I undertook a joyful sequence of events, signings, and presentations. "VA Freshwater Fishes" is now in its second printing, and "Tunas" is on track for sales projections. Who says books are out of fashion?

On top of all this, I continue working on our new Caribbean field guide, and I'm contracting more new projects including two new Apps in the US and abroad.
I love my job! Working 12-hour days is so tremendously satisfying. I can't imagine more fulfilling  life.
Live, Love, Fish!

September 24, 2019

Rebuilding Ocracoke.

September 15, 2019

Ocracoke Strong!

Anyone who knows me, knows how much I love Ocracoke. I started visiting this glorious island 20 years ago with my then very young sons. They are grown and on their own now, but we still make our way to Ocracoke every summer to spend precious family time together. The experiences they had there helped them become the men they are today! There is no other place like Ocracoke...

The community of Ocracoke is strong and tight-knit that is accustomed to weather events ranging from thunder storms to major hurricanes. However, Hurricane Dorian dealt a blow unknown since the 1940s. On September 6, 2019, this storm blew a 7-foot storm surge across the island that inundated homes, businesses, and infrastructure. No body on the island was spared in Dorian’s wake. The reports coming from the island are heart breaking.
While the storm pummeled Ocracoke, I was stuck far away, and unable to help in any way except in notes of support. When the storm moved on, I wanted to help my friends dig out from under the rubble. But that wasn't possible either. I felt pretty darned helpless and worthless. Then, I remembered! While fishing with my friend, Norman, he said in passing, "You need to get your fish on T-shirts."

Suddenly, I realized I wasn't frozen or unable to help. I called my friend, Candice, and told her about my epiphany. She  jumped on board and enlisted her friend, Mel, who runs Bread and Butter Screen Printing. Mel joined the team, and together we developed this fund-raising T-shirt. 

“Tight Lines, Tight Community” Hurricane Relief T-shirt features my original Red Drum illustration, and is professionally designed and produced by Bread and Butter Screen Printing.

Each durable shirt is custom made, on a high-quality 100% cotton Gilden T, and is available in Mint Green, Sky Blue, and Ash Gray. They will stand the test of time, and proudly show your support toward recovery!

100% of profits will go to the Outer Banks Community Foundation for Ocracoke hurricane relief.
Check out their great work at

You can further help by making a direct donation, or order multiple shirts to share with your circle of friends and family who love or support Ocracoke.

Every little bit helps rebuild this special island.

Thank you for your support!

July 7, 2019

Mola Mola

People often ask me which are my favorite fishes to illustrate. Hands down: the weirdos and oddballs. Fishes that don't look like your average Joe fishes, don't behave like your average schooling Joe fishes, fishes named after other animals! Batfishes, Frogfishes, Squirrelfishes! Fishes that walk, crawl, croak, and otherwise do their fishy thing in their weird fishy way. See: Searobins. (So cool.) I also love illustrating fishes that mimic bottom glop, or sponges, seaweeds, or... other fishes. Colorful, crazy, messed up fishes.

Then there is the Mola. It's super boring in terms of color. It's body and fins are not challenging to render. No crazy scale rows, no intricate patterns. It's kind of dull. Except... it's NOT!
This is one of the coolest and most highly evolved fishes in the sea.

Here's an amusing little primer on this super cool fish:

June 25, 2019

Jessie Grove: A Tribute to a Great Lady

Jessie dressed to the nines for the most casual of family gatherings. 
Jessie Grove was born over 103 years ago. On June 22, 2019, Jessie left this world for another. Her life was extraordinary, exemplary, and full of joy, love, kindness, and laughter.

Jessie was known affectionately as "Grandmom" by her three grandchildren, her six great grandchildren, and her sons- and daughters-in-law––myself included. She was raised in Kansas and attended a one-room school house. Details of her childhood are, unfortunately, sparse. Jessie had one daughter––Betty––at a very young age. Times were economically challenging for Jessie. She was fortunate to have the support of a family in Detroit, Michigan, who offered to raise her daughter. Despite the distance, Jessie was devoted to her daughter and traveled extensively to see her. They remained very close for the duration of her life.

Jessie met and married Bob Grove and together they traveled the world. Their stops and journeys were marked with pins and threads on an antiqued plastic globe of the Earth. Bob was an entrepreneur, a military man who traveled in service, and a sheer wizard with tools. Bob and Jessie settled in Fort Meyers, Florida, and enjoyed a life full of work, friends, and fishing. Some time around 1986, Bob and Jessie retired from Florida and moved into a country house surrounded by gardens in White Hall, Virginia. This location suited them well, as they were able to host and partake of regular lunches, dinners, and holidays with their growing family of great grandchildren.
Bob and Jessie Gove in their Fort Meyers heyday!

Jessie and Bob downsized again in a move to University Village, in Charlottesville, Virginia. Bob and Jessie were not deterred by condo living and continued with their outdoor pursuits. They built a water feature complete with plants and goldfish for all the residents to enjoy. They also built a garden below their balcony, fed the hummingbirds, made many many friends. Bob also built –– by hand! –– a fanciful playhouse out in Free Union, VA, for family friends. It stands today as a fine remembrance of his handiwork.

Granddaddy Grove and Grandmom with their second great grandchild, Drew.
Granddaddy Grove and Grandmom with their fourth great grandchild, Dave.
Bob passed away around 20 years ago. Jessie, in her characteristic way, lived on always with a cheerful, positive, and kind manner. She often talked of and joked about Bob as if he were sitting next to her. Her stories flew from her memory with clarity and warmth. Jessie was not one for regret, sorrow, or remorse. Jessie did not have a mean, spiteful, angry, or bitter bone in her body. Jessie was always kind, loving, gentle, sweet, and super funny. She never, ever complained, and she never left the house without lipstick on! Jessie was cheerful to her core and always quick to laugh.
Grandmon at Grandparent's Day with her great grandson, Dave (and me).

Jessie eventually fell and wound up in the hospital. Although she longed to live independently as she alway had, she moved into assisted living without complaint. She continued to share in family dinners and was visited often by her clan of grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Jessie Grove was a fine lady full of grace, charm, warmth, and kindness. She lived a long, prosperous, and full life. Jessie loved well and was well loved in return.

Godspeed, Grandmom!
Jessie's 101 birthday celebration with all her adoring friends and family.

June 4, 2019

Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes of Virginia!

It's been a VERY busy couple of years.
No time to post here... but... I'm baaaack! (At least for now)
After 6 years of development, Tunas and Billfishes of the World is in press and due to be available in September.
Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes of Virginia is also in press, and due out this Fall, too!
Like I said, I've been super busy...

I just launched the website for Freshwater Fishes of Virginia, below.
Please check it out!

January 19, 2018

Ban Balloons!

I noticed an event on FB that will be held in memory of persons to be un-named. It was dubbed "Balloons and Beers." Apparently, the organizers wanted to join up, release balloons in memorial, then reconvene for beers. In my town. Just a few miles away from my home. I sent them a note and asked them NOT to let balloons fly.

Balloons and their tethers are B-A-D! They choke, they strangle, they entangle, they slice, they suffocate, they cause blockages and deaths to birds, mammals, reptiles, fishes... and on and on.

Made from rubber (a source built on the destruction of forests), and twine (what the heck goes into that horrible twine?), balloons represent another one-and-done, use-it-once-throw-it-away, unnecessary, wasteful, human trifle. What's the point? Yay! We let a bunch of rubber and plastic loose into the environment to "celebrate" XYZ.

The movement is at hand. People are wising up.
Plastic straws? Your days are numbered.
Plastic bags? Ditto.
Balloons? I wish they were gone from this planet forever.... beginning now.

Warning: The imagery is grotesque.

PS: Just heard that the organizers have rethought the event and have decided not to let balloons fly. YAY!!!!

January 13, 2018

Sh-thole Countries???

Every morning I brace myself for more vitriol, negativity, attacks, destruction, and lies from the alternate reality that this nation's highest office seems to live in. When the news exploded over T-rumps "Sh-thole" comments, I was enraged. But I soon realized I was wasting my energy. Nothing is likely to change in the next three years. The dye is cast and I am better off spending my energy in positive ways.

Thankfully, at least one of my Facebook friends put a cynical (and hysterical) spin on recent events.

I hope this make you laugh as loud as I did.

"Shithole Countries throughout history that have seen mass immigration to the US:

1619-1865 - Slaves, West Africa. Forced to come to, what would have been to them at the time, a shithole country.
1620 - Puritans, English. Left shithole England because of religious intolerance.
1840’s - Irish. Left shithole Ireland due to massive famine.
1800’s - Germans. Left shithole Germany due to overcrowding and lack of opportunity. (Trumpf is of German descent, Bavaria to be precise. F. Trump left the shithole of Bavaria because he was a Calvanist in a mostly Catholic country). Bavaria was such a shithole it doesn’t exist anymore.
1850’s - Chinese. Left shithole China due to lack of opportunity and in search of riches. Many were ’Shangaied” as indentured slaves.
1870’s - Russia. Russians occupied what is now Alaska looking to escape the shithole Czars and revolution.
1880-1920 - Central, Eastern & Southern Europeans. Italians due to shithole economy and Jews due to shithole pogroms.
1940-1950’s - Germany. Germans left their destroyed shithole country. 
1940-1950’s - Poland. Poles left their destroyed shithole country.
1960’s - Cuba. Cubans leave their shithole country because of Communism.
1990’s - Haiti. Haitians leave Haiti due to an unending procession of storms and Dictators. I’ve left out other shithole countries in South and Central America (too many to count).

We seem to be a nation populated by shithole people from shithole countries."

January 1, 2018

Revisiting the Salmon Question

I don't eat Salmon. I won't serve Salmon. I've banned Salmon from my home and openly shame my immediate family members for even considering Salmon on a restaurant menu.

As I dug and read and conducted research for a project on NW Atlantic and NE Pacific cetaceans, I became even more distressed over how important Salmon are in the ecosystem. A conversation with a person-who-will-remain-anonymous ensued, in which she said, "Don't tell me, I don't want to know. And anyway, there's nothing I can do." I replied, "Yes, there is something you can do. The alternative is bury your head in the sand." As a big Salmon eater, I knew I would not sway her. Instead, I'll do my small part to spread a little knowledge....

Feed: Farm-raised Salmon are fed pellets made from either all or some of these ingredients:
grains, animal byproducts, and fish meal. Before harvesting, the amount of fish meal fed to the pen-raised Salmon is increased from about 30% to 90% to increase the amount of Omega-3. Farmed fishes are being fed wild fishes at the bottom of the food chain that would otherwise be eaten by wild fishes, marine mammals, and sea birds in other parts of the world.
CLICK HERE for FAO information page.
Photo credit: FAO
Color: In the wild, Salmon are carnivores and derive their food entirely from natural prey high in fatty acids, vitamins and carotene. To make up for this gap, farmers add artificial or synthesized supplements to enhance the flesh color before harvesting.
CLICK HERE to read about CARROPHYL (R) a color enhancer.
Photo credit: K. Ganter
Water Quality: Farm-raised Salmon live, feed, and excrete in large, semi-enclosed pens. The excrement and left-over food accumulates or disperses in the surrounding water and on the bottom below, creating changes in the local environment. Pens located in high-current areas are flushed more often and are more environmentally sustainable, but labeling still doesn't require this disclosure.
Image credit: Dr. George Pararas Carayannis
Non-endemic: Northeastern Pacific, farm-raised salmon are Atlantic Salmon which do not occur naturally in Pacific waters. Escapes and pen failures have allowed non-native introductions, and with that, introduction of viruses, diseases and infections which are treated with antibiotics. These illnesses may put wild salmon at further risk.
CLICK HERE for Times Colonist article.
A little additive color with your dinner? Photo credit: Guide to Safe Salmon
Reproduction: Most wild, anadromous Salmons die after spawning. They don't re-enter the ocean and return again to natal streams to spawn a second time. They are a one-and-done species. Each wild salmon taken from the ocean takes away a potential future generation. Additionally, the carcasses of dead Salmons return vital nutrients into streams.
Photo credit: FishWithJD
Predators: Many species prey naturally on wild Salmon: bears, sea birds, pinnipeds, sharks, and Killer Whales. The Southern Resident Killer Whales are known to prey primarily on energy-rich salmon. Atlantic Killer Whales also feed on salmon. Take the salmon out, take the whales out with them... The further Salmon stocks decline, the more these whales are in peril.
CLICK HERE for a podcast and information from NOAA.
Photo credit: NOAA
Offshore Killer Whales have been shown to feed on sharks. There teeth wear down over time from the abrasive skin. These elderly whales then rely on food sharing within the pod. They have been shown to feed on Pacific Sleeper Sharks, Blue or Whitetip sharks, Opah, and halibut. Sleeper sharks are opportunistic feeders and will prey on a wide variety of fishes, marine mammals, and carrion. Large halibut prey primarily on fishes, including... you guessed it... Salmons.

In conclusion, if ignorance is bliss, then knowledge is power. Power to make informed decisions, lifestyle changes, and little changes that do make a big difference.

If you care to pick up a great book on the broader subject, check out "Four Fishes" by Paul Greenberg. Good read.

Cheers and Best Fishes for a fresh New Year!

December 8, 2017

The vanishing Vaquita

The Vaquita is a small porpoise endemic to the Gulf of California. It coexists with the Totoaba, a fish targeted for their valuable swim bladders that are thought to be highly medicinal in China and trade for thousands of dollars on the Black Market. Under pressure from conservation groups and the US government, the Mexican government has placed tight restrictions on fishing in northern GOC, but they are difficult to enforce, and the local people struggle to survive and may continue to succumb to the draw of Black Market profits. And so, the Vaquita continues to decline. It's population is not estimated at 30... a number that may not allow for recovery.

It's a sad, but true story of greed, abuse, and short sightedness. The current US administration has demonstrated a blind eye to important environmental issues, and have relaxed protections put in place by previous administrations. That is not to say we no longer have a voice and with enough support and pressure, can help turn the tide before this animal vanishes on our watch.

What can we do to help?
Support The Center for Biological Diversity CLICK HERE
Support the World Wildlife Fund CLICK HERE
Visit the Marine Mammal Commission for more information CLICK HERE

Watch this:

November 10, 2017

Fishy Friday! Evolution of Cichlids

Cichlids are one of the most successful and diverse family of fishes (eclipsed only by Gobies and Cyprinids) with roughly 112 genera, and at least 1,350 species. In Africa, there are at least 900 species alone, with concentrations in the three African lakes that contain more species of fishes than any other lake in the world! Their diversity is mind-blowing.

Some are mouth-brooders, others lay eggs and defend nests, and others combine both methods of reproduction. While primarily a freshwater fish of the tropics, some live in brackish waters.

Because they are small, easy to capture, observe, and test, they have been the subject of much research.

Here now, a superb presentation given by Axel Myer:

September 20, 2017

of Doughballs and YouTube buttons

I've recycled and experimented with all kinds of left-over food as bait: bread, ham, bacon, shrimp, turkey.... "Whatever that guy over there just wasted, may I have it for bait?" Yes, I've actually asked servers to give me left overs so I can go fishing.

Sand fleas? They do NOT need to be fresh to be effective. We've microwaved them and frozen them. Yep, they still catch fish.

Doughballs catch just about any small-mouthed fish I've come across: bass, brim, suckers, shiners, trout, and yes... grunts, snappers, chubs etc. "What are you using?" "Left-over doughballs from my airport sandwich." "No kidding?" "No kidding." Doughballs are even better with a little mayonnaise :)

However, I've never experimented with hardware. Honestly, it never occurred to me. Until now.

This is inspired... and very funny~!

September 14, 2017

OMG! Science Geeks Rock!

This made me laugh so hard, tears ran down my face. Totally relate. I still regularly put my patient and nature-loving sons through a "fact check" in the most embarrassing places: grocery store, gift 
"Ahi Tuna is a fake name. It doesn't exist, boys. And don't get me started on the bycatch or Salmon." 
"Mom, we know. Can we just order?"
Love this!

September 11, 2017

September 10, 2017

Storm Surge - Part 2

A friend of mine described this phenomenon on Currituck Sound after a hurricane blew through the Outer Banks of North Carolina. His description was eerie. This video makes hurricane force clear.

Here is the original Facebook post:

Long Island, Bahamas ! There is no more ocean ! As far as the eye can see . And they don't know where it went ! Wow .... Irma is more powerful than people think ! Be safe guys . 🙏🏼🙏🏼🙏🏼 P.S. This is not me filming ..... Update: Long Island has the all clear .. The sea is gradually coming back! Praise God....

Meanwhile, in the Florida Keys:

September 8, 2017


Flashback: Ocracoke Island, August 16. A low pressure system had been hanging off the coast for a few days. The ocean was BOILING. It sounded like a freight train. We headed for the beach anyway, anxious to get in and recoup a lost year away from it!

When we pulled up, I took one look and said, "Um. Nope! This is not good. I don't like the look of this. Not a good idea to get in that water."
Storm surge, Ocracoke 2017
My son, Dave, ignored my pleas, threw on some sun block, grabbed his surf board and headed into the water.

I implored: "Dave, this makes me very nervous! Please don't go in!"

He was undeterred: "Mom, it's fine."

The fear reduced me to tears.

He fought his way through the surf, was justly pummeled, and returned about 10 minutes later.

"You were right, Mom. It's too big."

"Number one, I'm always right. Number two, you made me cry!"

Soon after, the Park rangers stopped by each car to tell everyone to stay out of the water. Unbeknownst to us and just up the beach, a man had drowned the previous day in the rip current while attempting to save another man caught in it.

Jump ahead to today: Hurricane Irma has already flattened parts of the Caribbean and now threatens the Florida Keys and South Florida. NOAA is predicting up to 9-foot storm surge in parts of South Florida. This storm surge dwarfs the surge above. According to NOAA Hurricane Center (CLICK HERE for link) and the map below, 9-foot storm surge inundates a huge portion of oceanfront.
South Florida with potential 1- to 9-foot storm surge

While I sit high and dry in the Fish Cave––many miles from the ocean, reading posts on Facebook from friends who plan to ride out the hurricane––I'm reminded of ocean's power and destruction. It's real. It's unfeeling. It can knock down buildings, wash out bridges, rip up trees, toss boats and trucks, wash over islands, and drown people and animals in it's path.

Absolutely Love the ocean! But also fear and respect the ocean... and if possible, get the hell out of the way.

September 7, 2017

August 5, 2017

Fish Geeks: a Primer

There's a thing about Fish Geeks: only Fish Geeks really "get" other Fish Geeks. We are a large and diverse tribe of obsessive, compulsive, and driven students, professors, researchers, divers, snorkelers, fishermen, and... artists :)

Our closets are stuffed with T-shirts, Hawaiian shirts, baseball caps, and shorts emblazoned and embroidered with fishes on them. Bumper stickers, drink coasters, keys fobs? Only fish related. Tattoos? Fishes.

Our homes are decorated with fish mounts, fishing memorabilia, fish-related awards, fishing and diving photos, and other fishy decor. If the Geek has it real bad, even his mailbox is in the shape of a fish.

We read and write and blog about fishes. We photograph, film, and illustrate fishes. We attend meetings about fishes. Our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter feeds are fully of fishy news. Who bothers with the New York Times when we've got the Underwater Times?!

We all know the words to the songs "Fish Heads" and the zippy, rappy "Rockfish Barotrauma." We've all seen video "Fish Guys - 48 hour Challenge"––multiple times!

And who can forget the super cute and classic "Barber Lab Quartet - Coral Triangle"?

And we even cover classic songs with lyrics about fishes!

I think I've made my point.
Want to join the club? New members are always welcome! But be forewarned––it's a life-long addiction. And, there are no Fish Addiction Treatment Centers... yet. ;)

July 27, 2017

The Zebra Effect

Mimicry is one of the coolest adaptations in Nature. Stripes in the grass confuse. Stripes in the water warn! Banded sea snake, Mimic octopus, Pilotfish... Venomous? Best not to find out.
Image by copyright Steve Childs
Now wetsuits? Makes sense, sounds logical. That said, when we enter the water, we agree to leave safety behind. Sharks will be sharks. But this still leaves me wondering if I should stripe-out my son's surf board~! Watch to the end...


June 17, 2015


Once again, sharks have made the news, and not for good reasons. While I do not mean to minimize the seriousness of the injuries caused, I feel compelled to re-emphasize the rarity of shark-related injuries.

In the aftermath of recent events, the Washington Post published a blog that put into perspective the chances of being killed by a shark versus being killed by a cow... or a dog... or a wasp. The post did not include statistics about being killed by vending machines (13 per year) or by falling out of bed (450 per year). CLICK HERE or click on image to read post.

When I enter the ocean, I weigh the risk, and understand that when I am making the choice to enter their world. And I keep a length of rope in my truck -- just in case a shark mistakes me, my sons, or anyone near me for a fish.
Safe travels, Val

June 12, 2015

Horseshoe Crabs

Photo credit: Carl Safina
On my way back from the Keys a few weeks ago, I overheard a conversation between two students. One sat next to me in the airport terminal, the other sat on a beach counting birds that were feasting on horseshoe crab eggs.

Then, this morning, Carl Safina posted the following excerpt from his book, "The View from Lazy Point:"

"When horseshoe crabs were new under the sea, fish did not yet have jaws, corals were just evolving, and flowering plants, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals did not exist. Hundreds of millions of years later, dinosaurs would rise, flourish, and vanish. Right around closing time, we've strolled in, and they're still here."

Just a thought...

May 4, 2015

Mackerels, Tunas & Billfishes of the United States.

Mackerels, Tunas & Billfishes of the United States, by Val Kells

This just in... Fresh off the presses! Top-notch quality, spot-on reproduction.
You can get one HERE.

Enjoy, share, and please care for pelagics :)

April 27, 2015

Blacktip Sharks Chasing Topwater Lures

It's no secret... I love sharks. They fascinate me~!

While I'm not close to being a shark-fishing expert, I've caught my share. It's usually a messy experience with lots of knotted line and bent hooks. Grabbing a wriggling shark is a tricky deal -- watch out for the sharp end! Getting the hook out of their very leathery skin is another deal that requires pliers and a strong hand. Fortunately, sharks are hardy creatures, and I've released all alive.

This video is really cool. Blacktip Sharks doing what they are built to do in a swift, tenacious, and aggressive manner. Quite a show.

No worries, the hooks were removed, so no sharks were harmed or landed. Heck, I don't think I'd want to land one of those fishes! I'd probably loose a finger... or two ;)

April 17, 2015


Image by Mike Laptew ©

The Earth is flush with many spectacular rituals and phenomena. Think: mass coral spawning, Northern lights, phosphorescence.

Migrations have always intrigued me. When a Rubythroat Hummingbird recently showed up at my front porch looking for the jar of nectar I keep hanging each summer, I thought: "Holy COW! That little bird came all the way from MEXICO and REMEMBERED how to get back to this very spot in VIRGINIA!" I quickly prepared a new batch of nectar, hung it on the porch, and sure enough, the little bird returned again.

Fish migrations are another source of wonder. Think about it: Salmonids hatch in rivers (sometimes miles upstream), move offshore, and return to the very same stream to spawn as adults. American Eels make the opposite migration.... adults spawn somewhere in the Sargasso Sea, and their offspring move inshore and upstream until maturity. Other fish migrations remain a mystery. To this day, no one knows for sure where Great White Sharks spawn, or really why they travel such long and seemingly random distances.

Shads (collectively called "River Herring") are anadromous and a vitally important link in the food web. They used to have unimpeded pathways to their spawning grounds. When the rivers they traveled were dammed, their numbers plummeted. Aside from the dams and natural predators, they also had to overcome pollution, siltation, water withdrawal, and over-fishing. Today, some of those dams have come down, and other dams have been modified to include fish ladders. It's been proven that once a dam comes down, the fishes return almost immediately! Amazing.... An internal GPS and a drive to reproduce is hard-wired into the fish's DNA and cannot be suppressed, even by a dam.
The beautiful photo above was taken by Mike Laptew of Laptew Productions. His images document the gorgeous and often overlooked diversity of fresh and salt water wildlife, both above and below the surface. Take a look here to see more.

April 14, 2015

Goblin Shark revistied

Original 1898 illustration showing protruding jaws (feeding/gulping position)
What is a 'goblin', anyway? According to Mirriam-Webster dictionary, a goblin is "a grotesque sprite or elf that is mischievous or malicious toward people." It adds, "Goblins are demons of any size, usually human or animal form, that are supposed to assail, afflict, and even to torture human beings." Wikipedia describes goblins as: "A Goblin is a legendary evil or mischievous grotesquedwarf-like and daemon or monster that appeared in European stories and accounts during the Middle Ages.” They are attributed with various (sometimes conflicting) abilities, temperaments and appearances depending on the story and country of origin. In some cases, goblins are little creatures related to the brownes and gnome. They are usually small, sometimes only a few inches tall, sometimes the size of a dwarf, and have magical abilities; they are greedy, especially for gold and jewelry." 

This is what their jaws look like most of the time. 
When the David Starr Jordan described the Goblin Shark in 1898 goblins were likely still a part of the culture and lore of the time. I don't know if he coined the common name, or if it was assigned at a later date. The scientific name, Mitsukurina owstoni, honors Mr. Allen Owston who secured the first specimen from a fisherman off Japan, and Professor Keigo Mitsukuri who passed the specimen on to Jordan for official description. It is a fitting and honorable name. The unattributed common name, however, cast a spell upon the shark which remains today.

When a specimen was recently caught in a trawl net off of Australia, it was variously called "evil, vile, creepy, ugly, terrifying, disturbing, hideous." NBC news said it can also be found "in your nightmares." Inaccurate descriptors surely meant to drum up attention and feed the public's thirst for drama. The only adjectives to accurately describe it are "prehistoric," and "living fossil," as those are true.

The Goblin Shark is a rare shark indeed, and from one of the oldest lineages of Elasmobranchs. It is one-of-a-kind and the only species within its genus. It is dissimilar to all other sharks with an elongate snout and highly protrusible jaws. It's soft body allows it to live at crushing depths. It occurs in scattered circumglobal locations over deep continental shelves, upper slopes, and around sea mounts to about 4,200 ft. Encountering one in your annual trip to the beach is less likely than winning the lottery.

While I doubt the common name will change in my life time, it would be refreshing to see it done. Heck, the American Fisheries Society renamed the Jewfish~! Why not rename the Goblin Shark? Such a cool fish deserves a more flattering moniker.

March 26, 2015


A Field Guide to Coastal Fishes by Val Kells & Kent Carpenter
I work long hours. Sometimes from 6am to 8 or 9pm. As I write this, it's 8:33pm.
Why? The answer is complicated and would take up more space than this post affords :)
In short, I'm driven. And:
One: I LOVE my work.
Two: I love the people I work with.
Three: I love what we accomplish together.
Four: I get to help other people do their work.
Five: (and this is most important)... my work spreads... it grows... it multiplies.

What I did five years ago is helping someone right now! Or, someone five years from now.

It's cool.

Here is something I came across by accident that rewards my efforts, and also propels me to continue. Scroll down to References :)


Cheers, Val

February 27, 2015

A Move in the Right Direction~!

This should happen across the US. Even the most innocuous bit of plastic will eventually find its way to an ocean. Stop the plastic, stop the problem.

San Francisco Becomes The First City To Ban Sale Of Plastic Bottles.

May 12, 2014

Fish Porn - AKA: Eye Candy

When I first saw this trailer on FB, I thought I was in for another dose of meat fishing.
Not so!
To my happy surprise, I was served a healthy dose of catch and release. Extreme catch and release.
Those barnacles have got to hurt...
I look forward to the full length version.
For more information click here: Morning Tide Fishing

May 3, 2014

The Fish Cave

The Fish Cave (aka: my office)

Life in the Fish Cave has been something of a pressure cooker. I've had little time to think about anything other than illustrating and therefore, no time to post. Work has ramped up in the past year and I'm currently producing a new poster and three new books:
A Field Guide to Coastal Fishes - from Alaska to California, Tunas and Billfishes of the World, and Florida Saltwater Fish ID.
We recently published Gulf of Mexico Saltwater Fish ID.
The first two books in the list have competing 2015 deadlines. And while I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, I also foresee very little wiggle room! For the next ~12 months, my days and weekends will be filled with work work work, research, painting, planning, copy editing, designing.... Don't get me wrong, I actually LOVE working! Producing something tangible, meaningful, lasting, and educational is tremendously rewarding.
That said, my neglect of this little space became too much to ignore.
My Mom mentioned how much she liked reading this blog. Friends have repeatedly told me they worry about my lack of 'balance'. My husband complains that I spend too much time working.
So, I've made a promise to post something fun, interesting, or thought-provoking at least once per week. While this entry may not fall under any of those catagories, it at least marks my re-entry.

June 11, 2013

Ospreys are cool.

I've been following this pair of Ospreys as a way to fill my head with happy distractions and to find hope and light in the face of so much bad news. The Chesapeake Conservancy Osprey Webcam has become my favorite reality TV show. It's real, it's natural, and it's unaffected. It is the opposite of MTV, SPIKE, and all the other mind-numbing black holes.

Enjoy. Be real. Do real.

 To learn more about the Chesapeake Conservancy, please CLICK HERE. Cheers!


Repeat after me: "Don't eat farm-raised Salmon."

May 9, 2013


I should start saving cartoons... this one hits it.
Happy Friday, visitors!
Go Fishing :)

April 18, 2013

Would you do this to your Cats or Dogs?

I hate this practice.
Stringing, hanging, or pegging dead fishes just plain goes against my moral center.
It's embarrassing...
Congratulations. You caught dinner.
Now show some humility.
And some humanity.
(Photo via Facebook. A deep well of offensive images...)

Octopuses Really ARE Cool ~!

Every once in a while I'm reminded that there are other creatures besides fishes that deserve the 'COOL' label.
Yep, Octopuses are cool.

April 14, 2013


I just finished my taxes.
I should be depressed... I'm being taxed for working!
But right now I'm actually quite happy.
After getting over the amount due and the accompanying self-pity, I logged onto FB and pulled up this photo:

It dawned on me:
My net-worth is not measured in dollars.
Intangibles can't be measured...

Take my money, government.
Please use it well.

But this can never be taxed or taken, because it's immeasurable.

April 12, 2013

Saving Shad

Boy Howdy.
Seems like I go through long droughts of no news, no news... then, tons of NEWS!

This is great!
A well-organized and planned effort to re-establish the pre-existing shad fishery in the Delaware River. The results of these efforts will also benefit the Atlantic Bight and beyond. While I have not had one-on-one conversations, it's pretty obvious that these folks are determined to undo huge obstacles.

Shad and their brethren need to spawn. Until such time as the dams come down and the rivers run free and clean, it appears to me that the Delaware River Shad Fishermen's Association are willing to transport the fish one, two, three, and four at a time. So that the fish can do just that... spawn.

Below is a fellow named Phil Papineau with a net-full of the future. We have never met and may never will. Regardless, he has my deep thanks and admiration.
Way to go.
That is so cool.


Bragging on a Good Thing

Bragging on my cohort and coauthor, Luiz Rocha, Ichthyologist and Curator at the California Academy of Sciences. He is not only a gifted scientist, but also a passionate educator and conservationist.

To visit Luiz's California Academy of Sciences' page, please CLICK HERE.