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Friendly whales

The gray whale surfaced with a blow alongside a panga full of whale-watchers and hung there, huge head held above the water as the passengers leant over the side. Some lay their hands flat against the whale’s skin, others scratched and patted the whale vigorously like you might pat a big dog. The whale rolled slightly onto its side and opened its mouth revealing the creamy coloured baleen I’d previously only seen on stranded animals or in museums. As the freshening breeze blew the panga downwind, the whale sank then resurfaced, actively working to stay alongside the boat.

That might sound magical but did I mention the screaming? Over the whirr of outboard engines, the slap slap of waves against hulls and waterproofs flapping in the wind, were the shrieks of excited whale-watchers. And it was exciting but, for me, magical it was not. More than anything I was puzzled. I’d heard plenty about encounters with friendly whales in these salty lagoons but seeing it for real was something else. Why would the whales actively seek contact with people, was it just that they liked to have a good scratch? And why only do this here, in the lagoons of Baja? The whales had been hunted almost to extinction in this very place, and now they liked to be tickled by tourists? The panga next to mine burst into song.

With time, and some jostling from our captain, the whale surfaced beside us. The feathery appendages of the whale’s barnacles, now thrust above the surface, worked the air furiously. Whale lice clustered around the whale’s blowholes, pastel peach against the grey of the whale. It blew and a blast of spray shot past us. I reached out instinctively, as I would if a horse had trotted to a fence beside me. Far from stroking the whale or doing the recommended hearty scratch, I prodded it square in the rostrum and immediately felt a fraud for having touched it at all. I stuck to filming with my GoPro after that, capturing the details of this incredible and, to me, inexplicable encounter.

The encounter went on. Others joined the whale until we had three whales around us. The jostling and singing continued. If that was part of what attracted the whales, I was glad of it.

Later that evening, as the wind gently rustled my tent and the town’s dogs barked in the distance, I sat with my laptop warm against my knees and watched the day’s footage. Plunged beneath the waves into a steadier world of hissing waves and engine noise, my GoPro had captured the encounter from an entirely different perspective. I held my breath as a whale filled the frame; narrow encrusted rostrum then arching jaw, skin a patchy grey palette. Sunlight bent by the waves illuminated then shaded the whale as bubbles from a breaking wave fizzed to the surface. Then, as the whale cruised slowly by, an inquisitive eye. Perhaps I had seen the whale before as a distant blow in Alaska or feeding in a Californian cove. Now, at the end of our journeys in the shallow lagoons of Baja, the tables had turned.

Droning

“When you launch, you’re going to need to go up and out”, Emily told me as I surveyed our small launch area with horror. The stern deck of the boat was covered and our drones would be launched and recovered at arms length from the bobbing vessel. I was still staring. “Have you ever caught your drone by hand?”, Emily asked patiently. Of course I hadn’t, I like my hands. Empty fields are my favourite launch areas and, even then, I find it all a bit nerve-wracking.

Flying over water from a small, moving platform was always going to be mildly terrifying at best. Luckily I was under the close supervision of Emily, a calm, experienced drone pilot, and with her help the flight ended without mishap. Seeing the whales from the air had been the aim of the workshop but several factors needed to align for that to happen. We were in luck: we had good flying weather, calm seas and a trio of gray whales moving steadily south towards the lagoons of Baja.

From the air we could suddenly see them all, from their barnacle-ly rostrums to their broad tail flukes. They were huge, streamlined and making their mammoth migration look effortless. Their mottled grey bodies glowed in the sunlight, their blows forming fleeting rainbows (rainblows, if you like). It was an impressive sight and absolutely worth the raised blood pressure.

Of course there are regulations to adhere to when operating drones, particularly around wildlife. Many areas are off limits to drones altogether. If you are allowed to fly, there may be local regulations or flight restrictions to adhere to. In addition, because marine mammals are protected by law it’s illegal to disturb them. With that in mind, federal guidelines recommend keeping a safe aerial distance of at least 1000 feet (300 yards) from marine mammals in the wild. More information on how to view marine wildlife responsibly can be found here on NOAA’s website.

Migration update

When I visited the Gray Whale Census and Behaviour Project at Point Vicente centre on 8th December, it was a year to the day since the team had seen their first southbound gray whale of the previous year’s migration. Although we didn’t see any gray whales that day it was lovely to meet census director Alisa Schulman-Janiger and her fantastic team of volunteers. The day hadn’t been entirely blubber-free though, I’d passed a pod of bottlenose dolphins cruising along the surf zone as I’d cycled out to the Palos Verdes Peninsula, a real treat on a squally December day.

This year, the first southbound whales weren’t seen from Point Vicente until 12th December as they started trickling south. Almost two months later, the migration is now in full swing and, as of 3rd February, 302 southbound gray whales have been counted including 28 calves that have been born along the way. The counts are updated daily on the Gray Whale Census and Behaviour Project website along with information about how this year’s migration compares to last year’s.

Monterey Bay Whale Watch, to the north, has been enjoying plenty of gray whale sightings too. Monterey Bay is where northbound mother calf-pairs returning from the breeding lagoons of Mexico are forced to run the gauntlet as they cross the deep water of Monterey submarine canyon, where killer whales wait. If you’ve seen footage of killer whales hunting gray whale calves, chances are it was filmed in Monterey Bay with input from Nancy Black, the local killer whale expert. Unusually, this year the killer whales have also been hunting southbound gray whale calves (this video on the Monterey Bay Whale Watch Facebook page has amazing drone footage of killer whales and gray whales from 26th January). Killer whales are just one of the dangers the gray whales face on their incredible journeys.

Further north again, the Mendonoma Whale and Seal Study has been also been keeping watch. Despite some days with heavy whale traffic, overall they’ve had their lowest January count since they began monitoring the gray whales seven years ago. This could be due to changes in the timing of the migration (a later start was observed this year), the detectability of the whales (because of poor sighting conditions, for example, or behavioural changes) or their abundance.

Of course, the migration isn’t a clear-cut event and some individuals will be way ahead of, or far behind, the crowds. Two very keen gray whales were seen in the most northerly of the Baja lagoons – Ojo de Liebre – on 10th December. Further south in San Ignacio lagoon, boat surveys conducted by the Laguna San Ignacio Ecosystem Science Program to count the whales don’t begin until late January. Last year the highest whale count was on 25th February before the numbers began dropping off as the whales returned north. Again, not all whales are on exactly the same schedule; 10 northbound whales have already passed Point Vicente on their way back to their feeding grounds. Whichever way they’re going, the whales are on the move!

People

Dodgy drivers aside – which I attributed to carelessness rather than malice – I was shown nothing but kindness during my trip. From the driver who saw me cycling on a chilly day and chased me down with a huge hot coffee, to the friends of friends who took me in, fed me, housed me and did my laundry. I was given food parcels and boat trips and put in touch with even more friends and family further down my route; passed along like a smelly cyclist baton by a team of awesomeness.

Cyclists I met along the way helped with my bike, fixed punctures, shared route updates and waited for me at the top of hills, while people I’d contacted completely out of the blue gave up hours of their time to share their knowledge with me, show me the sights and then feed me too. And, of course, friends and family back home provided a magnificent flow of advice and encouragement, even when I was mostly grumbling.

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re one of the people that’s prompted this post and I’m immensely grateful. A massive grizzly-sized thanks to you for helping to keep me going.

Something I noticed, though, was how frequently people I met along the way, including these lovely, helpful people, told me “you’re brave”. By and large, it wasn’t the likelihood of being knocked off my bike by passing traffic, drowned by the torrential rains of Washington (or Oregon, or California), or having a run in with some of the massive, toothy, local wildlife that they thought I needed to be brave about (I asked). It was other people. Whilst these kindly people were going out of their way to help me or chat with me, they worried that others might do me harm.

Of course, I realise that bad things happen. And it was impossible not to see the struggles that so many people were facing along my route. Homelessness, drug use and mental health issues were apparent in every town I visited and on a scale I’d neither seen before nor expected. It was heart breaking to see. Whilst I didn’t always feel comfortable, none of the people I chatted with were anything but kind and curious.

It reminded me of a story I heard at a talk by the adventurer, Jenny Tough. As she ran through the Andes she was welcomed into the remote villages, offered shelter and food, and vehemently warned about how dangerous the people in the next village were. Upon reaching the end of her run, and having met only welcoming, friendly villagers, she was tempted to run her route in the opposite direction to let everyone know about their delightful neighbours.

For sure, I’m not going to cycle my route in the opposite direction, not now that I know how hilly it is, but you get the gist. With some sensible precautions, a pinch of good luck and the odds massively in my favour, the people I met along the way will be remembered as one of the highlights of my trip.

Almost!

In almost three months, I almost made it to San Diego having pursued gray whales (in a friendly way) for almost 4,000 miles from Alaska to California, cycling almost 1,750 miles along the way. Luckily I have never been overly concerned with the numbers, it just made me chuckle to see how many nice round numbers I almost reached.

My trip was due to last 89 days; one day less than the 90 days America’s visa waiver system allows me. My departure date caused a raised eyebrow from the immigration officer when I landed in Anchorage back in September and a heartfelt plea to leave on time. Yesterday – day 89 – was the day I due to fly home from LA. Instead, I landed back in the UK on day 82 of my trip in order to spend yesterday remembering the life of my 98 year old grandmother, who recently passed away.

It was fairly early in the trip that I accepted that my hopes and plans for The Gray Whale Cycle would need to be flexible. Some things can’t be planned for. Others can be, but weren’t, as I didn’t know then what I know now. My cycling target crept north from Baja to San Diego as I failed to keep up with my overly optimistic time plan. Lots of factors contributed to this; some were frustrations – bike issues and geologically-slow cycling speed, for example – while others were highlights, like extending my time in the incredible Monterey Bay. That week I learned from the experts about gray whales on both sides of the Pacific, the bone-eating Osedax worms that colonise whale skeletons on the seafloor and, now a firm favourite, the local sea otters. To be able to adjust my plans as I went to make the most of these opportunities was great, albeit logistically challenging. And all the muffins in the world wouldn’t have got me up those hills any faster.

By the last almost-month of my trip, I was ahead of the southward migration of gray whales (I started ahead of them rather than being too fast, as if) and I had moved south of the hotspots of the Pacific Coast Feeding Group. I had some excellent humpback whale sightings, though, and saw plenty of dolphins from boat trips and from shore, including a new species for me: northern right whale dolphins. Of the 150 northern right whale dolphins we encountered, I managed to get one photo containing a single individual. It looks like a slug. Many happy hours were also spent watching sea otters both in the wild, in a foggy Moss Landing and in Monterey Bay, and in a number of aquariums. They may have some unsavoury/criminal habits but look at their little faces.

Separate blog posts will follow on all the places I visited and people I met: scientists, volunteers, cycling buddies, friends of friends and chance encounters. There’ll be more about surviving gales, rock-falls and road closures in Big Sur, the rabbit-slaying owl of Sycamore Canyon and how I can now say, with certainty, that the trip never got easier. Only time will tell if some sections will become Type II fun (only remembered fondly once sufficient time has passed) or were, in fact, Type III fun (not fun at the time and never remembered fondly). It was absolutely an adventure though, from the fierce winds and sideways rain of Alaska to the, well, fierce winds and sideways rain of California.

All being well, I hope to visit San Diego and Baja in the new year to conclude my journey. Until then, here are the summary stats of the main leg of The Gray Whale Cycle:
Total countries visited: 2 (USA and Canada)
Total US States visited: 4 (Alaska, Washington, Oregon & California)
Total miles cycled: 1,746.7
Total miles travelled: 3,999 (2,000 miles by ferry, one lift for 142 miles to avoid three days of inland cycling through prime bear habitat and one train for ~110 miles to avoid another inland stretch)
Total cumulative elevation (m): 19,910

Last but not least, some thank yous. So many people helped along the way (there’ll be more on this soon), feeding me, housing me, sharing information and providing encouragement at the end of long days. Lots of others provided moral support from home, which also helped enormously. And, of course, IMarEST’s David Henderson Inspiring Journey grant was the key ingredient that made this trip happen. A million thank yous.

The Spoke Saga

Not being a cyclist, I hadn’t experienced a broken spoke until that fateful day south of Fort Bragg when a metallic ping rang out halfway up a killer series of switchbacks. That innocuous ‘twang’ resulted in me becoming semi-resident at the KOA campsite near Manchester beach, which – thankfully – was no great hardship.

Three days, a couple of bus rides, a new spoke and $50 later, I was back on the road. Having had the broken spoke replaced, and all the spokes re-tensioned, my bike was almost pleasant to ride. We still crawled up hills, of course (that’s my fault), but we could cruise downhill without the bike threatening to wobble itself into oblivion. The pleasantness didn’t last long, about 50 miles. Then there was another snap followed by my thoughts on spokes and their lack of commitment to this trip. This latest casualty didn’t buckle the back wheel too much and, as I was far from anywhere, I pushed on.

San Francisco

Seventy miles later, a San Francisco bike shop suggested a new rear wheel. My solid tyres were a problem though, they didn’t have the correct tool to work with them and two of their mechanics has previously broken their thumbs trying to wrestle the tyres. Two mechanics. Broken thumbs. What can you say to that? Plan B was to change all the spokes but not the rim. Cycling out of San Francisco I was $98 poorer but a set of spokes richer and relieved to have resolved the annoying spoke issue. The bike shop had suggested getting the new spokes re-tensioned in about 100 miles time, which would be in Monterey Bay or thereabouts. I’d barely covered half that distance when one of the new spokes called it a day. Sorry if this is getting boring, it was for me too. I limped into Santa Cruz on what felt like one of those wonky fairground bikes and consoled myself with a burrito the size of my head.

Limping towards Santa Cruz

The bike shop fun continued the next morning. Why explore Santa Cruz and go looking for sea otters when you can do a tour of the bike shops instead, right? One shop could work with solid tyres but didn’t have a suitable wheel while another couldn’t work with solid tyres (thumbs!) but had a wheel. All in, that came to another $170. The financial damage of this issue (we’re at $318 now) was greater than I had expected, the time cost was considerable and, as bad as either, this cemented my conclusion that my bike is not up to the job. My main concern when shopping for a touring bike had been that it would be tough enough to survive the journey and I don’t feel that it has been. We’ve managed another 76 trouble-free miles on the new wheel but, for sure, this will be the one and only big cycling trip we do together.

I’ve now visited bike shops in Victoria, Astoria, Newport, Fort Bragg, San Francisco and Santa Cruz
(photos from Google maps)

Two months!

It’s been two months! I’m not going to ask where the time’s gone, much of it passed exceedingly slowly as I crept uphill in granny gear with trucks almost grazing my elbow, sweat stinging my eyes. The cold nights, sudden noises in the dark and feeling of utter exhaustion with half the day’s mileage still to do are all fresh in my memory. So, though, are the albums worth of beautiful coastal views I’ve seen, the sunshine, the chats with new – and incredibly generous – friends I’ve made along the way and the times I’ve made it to my intended destination and happily crawled into my sleeping bag. Those days are the best.

Then there are the gray whales. They’ve eluded me where I was sure I would see them and then popped up when I’ve not had such high hopes. As I continue south, I’m ahead of the peak of the southward migration and will be leaving the Pacific Coast Feeding Group’s hotspots behind but I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they’ll continue to surprise me.

My bike has been the source of more delays and frustrations than I would have liked this month and we’ve almost fallen out a couple of times. The conditions have been demanding though, with debris-strewn hard shoulders, rough sections of road and a heavy load. With better mechanical skills, I’m sure I could have prevented some of these issues or dealt with them more swiftly. In that regard this has been a valuable lesson and, should I undertake another cycling trip in the future, I will most definitely pimp both my skills and my bike more thoroughly beforehand.

Right now, with solid puncture-proof tyres and a full set of new spokes on the rear wheel, Bertha the bike is – hopefully – ready for the final month of adventuring! I won’t even try to pretend to know what that will entail but I’m curious to find out. Massive thanks, as ever, to the David Henderson Inspiring Journey grant for making this trip happen, it’s truly the adventure of a lifetime.

Some summary stats (to Sunday 17th November):
Total countries visited: 2 (USA and Canada)
Total US States visited: 4 (Alaska, Washington, Oregon & California)
Miles cycled this month: 689.4 (1,293.4 in total)
Cumulative elevation gained this month (m): 7,315.5 (14,019.3 in total)
Number of sore knees: 2
Number of punctures: 6 (then solid tyres!)
Number of broken spokes: 2
Times gray whales seen: 6, probably 7 (once in Alaska (Pasagshak Bay), once in Washington (Neah Bay), twice in Oregon (Depoe Bay and Rocky Creek/Whale Cove), and two, possibly three, times in California (a stranded gray whale at Patrick’s Point, a probable gray whale at Point Arena and a lovely sighting from the highway near Meyer Gulch)
Things I appreciate more than ever: music, chairs and washing machines