The countdown begins
It has now been over a month since I heard that I have been awarded the David Henderson Inspiring Journey grant and the news still excites and terrifies me in equal measure. Being anxious about a plan is a surefire way of knowing it’s a good one, so I’m not overly concerned about that. More of a worry is how much of the last month I spent sitting around eating mince pies and Terry’s chocolate orange.
With that in mind I have been making a concerted effort to get out on my bike when I can, which wasn’t today because I was hurrying to catch a flight. It’s not tomorrow either; I’ll be on another plane then. Then I board a ship the day after. Luckily it’s a ship with an exercise bike and a treadmill, but also with excellent and abundant food. The struggle is real.
As well as training, there are routes to plan, people to contact, kit lists to refine and anti-bear strategies to devise. I’ve more questions than answers right now: are any of the ultralight tents on the market really weatherproof? Can I remember how to repair a punctured inner tube? Do muffins really cost $5 in Alaska? My to-do lists (yes, there’s more than one) keep on growing and October is creeping closer. It’s time to get moving; the countdown has begun!
A practice run
Really I should be cycling. Cycling from Alaska to Mexico will hurt less if I train more now. However, I have a couple of marathons coming up — London in April and Edinburgh in May — and I want them to hurt as little as possible too. As part of my training, I am travelling to Inverness this weekend to attempt to run coast to coast across Scotland. That’ll be from Inverness to the Isle of Skye, approximately 86 miles over five days. Some will be over fairly friendly terrain, alongside Loch Ness for example, while other sections will be remote and more gruelling.
Elements of the trip will undoubtedly parallel The Gray Whale Cycle: getting up each day with a destination to reach and only myself to make it happen, watching the scenery evolve as I progress, documenting and sharing my journey as I go, cursing headwinds and, hopefully, having a sense of achievement when I reach my goal. Whilst I’m not convinced that running fitness equates to cycling fitness, I’m excited to consider this a practice run.
Miles and medals
Running across Scotland from east to west was a huge success. Whilst the wildlife sightings were distinctly underwhelming (no golden eagles, no red squirrels and only a small herd of apologetic deer on the penultimate day), the scenery was fantastic. Winding our way up the rough track at the head of Glen Affric before bounding and whooping our way down the other side, with the waterfalls and streams tumbling off the Kintail mountains now flowing alongside us for the first time, was the absolute highlight. Not even 22 miles of incessant rain and an ice-cream headache inducing wind could dampen our spirits after that and we hobbled across the bridge to the Isle of Skye already planning future runs.
Whether it was the run across Scotland that helped get me through London marathon or the incredible atmosphere and cheering crowds, that was another day to remember. A punchy mix of bone-rattling bass from countless bands and speakers, bowls of jelly babies and slices of orange, smiles and shouts of encouragement from strangers, and the determination of all those runners who made it to the start line, never mind the finish. With survival my only goal, I soaked up the atmosphere and took it on the chin when a rhino overtook me in the final mile. Within 24 hours of finishing — with so many muscles still groaning and my running shoes sticky with Lucozade — I entered the ballot for the 2020 Virgin London marathon. Fingers crossed!
During The Gray Whale Cycle, I will mostly be camping and I could not be more excited, I love camping. Until recently I had two tents: my trusty stormproof North Ridge tent (like North Face, but not) and an ultra-lightweight Nordisk one. Unfortunately, neither tent seemed right for the job.
My North Ridge tent is pretty much indestructible and I’m very much hoping we’ll grow old together. It’s kept me snug in howling gales on an exposed headland on the Isle of Skye, incessant rain in Yorkshire and plenty in between. Its strength comes at a price though, it’s heavy and bulky and, sadly, is just too big to lug all the way from Alaska to Mexico.
My Nordisk Telemark tent, on the other hand, packs down nice and small and is as light as a feather. It’s also a minuscule canvas coffin that barely accommodates me, let alone any of my ‘stuff’. Perhaps I’ve never mastered pitching it correctly but its one pole gave up on a breezy night in Skye (different trip, Skye’s a windy place!) and heavy dew can spell disaster. It’s just not adventure-ready. Its future more likely involves Ebay.
After reading most of the internet, quizzing friends, borrowing tents (thanks Jon!) and visiting shops to stroke and prod their products, I settled on a winner. Over budget but bursting with promise, I went for an MSR Hubba Hubba NX. It has glowing reviews and even came with a free hip flask, what more can I say?
It arrived on a blustery Fife day and we immediately headed to the nearest hilltop. It passed that test with flying colours and, so far, I love it. It’s light (1.9 kg with the footprint), packs down to a manageable size, and is easy enough to put up and take down. It’s yet to be tested in heavy rain but I’m feeling optimistic. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship.
Orkney on wheels
The whistling call of curlews mixed with the shrill peeps of oystercatchers and acrobatic lapwings entertained with me their erratic flight as I cycled between wind-ruffled fields. Most impressive were two curly-haired Hungarian sheep pigs who trotted over to see me, hairy ears flapping enthusiastically (theirs, not mine). Wanting to dust off my panniers and stretch my legs, I had cycled off the ferry in Stromness that afternoon and was on my way to visit my excellent friend, Moni. The weather moves quickly in Orkney and by the time I arrived, 28 miles later, I had experienced brilliant sunshine, buffeting winds and stinging rain.
Saturday was a wildlife frenzy as Moni showed me the sights. Starting early, we quietly crept up on the local harbour seals: basking adults snoozed, pups swam in the shallows and a defensive mother saw off a grey seal with a short but convincing charge. Terns nesting on a nearby beach shrieked at our approach as their chicks scurried around in the dunes, then we were off to the Brough of Birsay in time to cross the causeway in search of more seabirds. Puffins, guillemots and razorbills lined the ledges, fulmars cruised over the cliff tops and shags stretched out their drying wings on the rocks below. A seal surfacing in the wash below us was our only marine mammal sighting of the afternoon, no killer whales for us.
Despite an excellent forecast, light rain pattered against the windows as I repacked my panniers on Sunday morning. I was taking the scenic route back to Stromness via the north coast to complete my lap of mainland Orkney. The slow slog to Kirkwall gave me time to reflect on the rumour of Orkney being flat.
Brighter weather and easier miles followed after that, along with a welcome lunch stop near Tingwall and an excellent cake break in Birsay. One more hour of cycling and I was rattling over the narrow cobbled streets of Stromness to a busy campsite beyond the harbour. I celebrated my 55-mile day with a warm rum and coke in the evening sun as I rehydrated some spicy noodles and listened to the hum of fishing boats heading home. With clouds approaching and the wind picking up, I retreated to my sleeping bag and was asleep by 9pm after a brilliant mini-adventure in Orkney.
“Nothing will guarantee your safety in bear country”. That was the opening line of the first article I read about how to behave in bear country, and it’s the gist of every other article I have read since then. Information gathering is usually my number one tool for overcoming worries. It hasn’t worked on this occasion.
They can charge at 44 mph, climb trees at top speed and smell food from miles away. Anything I can do, a bear can do better.
And, I need to know my grizzlies from my black bears because they play by different rules. If a black bear approaches my camp, I’m meant to shout, bang pots together and wave my arms around, perhaps lob some rocks at it. A grizzly, however, should be spoken to calmly as I avoid eye contact and back away slowly. Never try to move a grizzly bear.
Avoiding close encounters is the way forward and there are lots of things I can do to help with this. I’ll be storing all my food, toiletries and rubbish in a special bear-resistant canister. There’ll be no cooking or eating anywhere near my tent, that’ll happen downwind and far away. Only nice open spaces will be considered for camping spots and, when on the move, I’ll be making plenty of noise. No bear surprises, please.
I have only seen a bear once, a fleeting glimpse of a black bear in Big Bend National Park, Texas. A persistent snuffling noise emanating from a bush beside the path got my spider senses tingling. Then a bear poked his head out, looked around and vanished back into the bush. Fingers crossed any future bear encounters are of a similar nature — brief and peaceful.
Squirrels’ teeth & meteorites
Visiting the Alaska Heritage Museum was hands down the highlight of my stay in Anchorage. The single room on the ground floor of the Wells Fargo bank — inconspicuous and easily missed — houses a treasure trove of artefacts and is free to enjoy.
Models of umiak boats made from walrus or seal skin stretched over driftwood frames sat next to 1,000-year-old harpoon heads and blubber hooks. There were baleen buckets, baleen sledges and baleen baskets. Many of the baskets had carved ivory starter pieces shaped like the heads of marine mammals as they’re seen from a kayak. Woven from thin strips of baleen, the baskets were light as a feather and seriously robust.
A collection of carved tusks caught my eye. Incredibly intricate maps, scenes and animals had been etched into the ivory, whilst others also had three-dimensional figures on pegs that slotted into holes in the tusk. The curator of the museum, clearly very knowledgeable and with a mischievous air, opened up the display so I could take a closer look. “The people would have traded metal tools for carving these designs”, he told me, “and they also collected metals from fallen meteors”. Really? “And, apparently, squirrels’ teeth are incredibly hard”, he added. Wait, what? If trying to find fallen meteorites seemed crazily unfeasible, what were the chances of happening upon squirrels’ teeth? It only occurred to me later that whole squirrels — teeth and all — are easier to locate, but I’m still not entirely convinced.
Local knowledge & spider senses
Just a mile from Kodiak airport and four miles from town, Buskin River Recreation Site was conveniently located for my first night of camping on Kodiak Island. Having reassembled my bike at the airport, I wheeled into the park.
I was hoping I could manage a night without bear spray, camping gas and matches, all things I couldn’t bring on the plane, and my plan was to see what other campers at Buskin River reckoned. Except there weren’t any other campers. The place was deserted and my spider senses were on high alert.
Plan B had me bursting into Big Ray’s outdoor store three minutes before they closed, having cycled into Kodiak at top speed. As the shop assistant directed me towards the bear spray, I asked if he thought I would survive a night in a tent at Buskin River. He didn’t laugh or even smile. After a pause, a list of rules followed: always have bear spray in your hand, with the safety catch off, and test fire it to know its range. There was no debating whether there were bears there, there were. But with the abundance of salmon in the river at the moment the bears were well fed and quite mellow. Massive but mellow.
Back at Buskin River, it was getting dark. I cycled a lap of the site, pinging my bell as I went. Some cars passed through but none stayed. Camping site selected, I quickly set up my tent. Bear canister (the bear-proof container my food lives in) and toiletries went into a bear locker about 70 metres from my camping spot. The bear spray stayed by my side. By the time the tent was set up it was pretty dark, just time for a sandwich then bed.
Not wanting to eat near my tent, I cycled towards an open area near the river. Cycling through a darker stand of trees the light of my head torch suddenly illuminated a huge pair of eyes directly ahead of me. They looked straight at me, bright and green, then moved smoothly sideways back into the trees. Screeching to a halt, I turned circle. The sandwich went back into the bear canister and I dived into my tent.
What followed was a night of terror. Noises in the darkness had me shouting at the trees, blasting my air horn and gripping the bear spray, putting way too much faith in a can of aerosol-propelled vegetable extract. Something — perhaps the wind, perhaps not — caused one of my tent’s porches to collapse, the fabric rustling in the wind. Those were slow, slow hours. My fear levels spiked during a pee expedition in the dark hours before dawn.
Daylight eventually crept through the trees. Jet engines roared from the airport and the national anthem played from somewhere. My bike was loaded in record time and it wasn’t until I reached the airport that I finally ate my sandwich.
Since then my friend, Lars, has asked how I can know how bear-y a place is. I’m sticking with local knowledge and my spider senses, but with more attention paid to my spider senses in future. I won’t be camping at Buskin River again.
Beware the buffalo
After telling me how careful I needed to be camping at Buskin River, the shop assistant in Big Ray’s mentioned that my next stop, Pasagshak, was one of the least bear-y places on Kodiak Island. My spirits rose immeasurably.
“I’ve only seen one bear there in 30 years. There are wild horses and cows on the way, and the Highland cattle can be obnoxious,” he explained. “Oh, and you need to watch out for the buffalo.” Wait, what? “Sometimes I’d rather deal with a bear,” he added. Great.
The cycle out to Pasagshak was a slog. Exhausted after my night of bear terror, my bike was heavy with supplies and the hills felt endless. Strong gusts of wind hindered me no matter how much the road twisted and turned. Mike the friendly roadwork guy waved me over to talk bikes, offer me energy bars and share bear stories. Initially teasing me for having a bear bell jingling as I cycled, he grew serious when I said I’d just come from Buskin River. “That’s a bad, bad place for bears,” he repeated a couple of times. “You get 1000 lb bears there every day.”
Many hours later, having taken nearly twice as long as Google had expected, I rolled into Pasagshak. A bay hemmed in by mountains, with a shingly beach and river mouth, Pasagshak is very nearly the end of the road. A small campsite, a few houses set back from the beach and a boat ramp, that’s about it.
The campsite — more of a gravelly car park — was empty so I claimed the least rocky pitch as my own and battled to set up my tent in the blustery wind. Between the gusts that tore loudly at my tent and the surf that crashed onto the beach, a whole team of bears could have been tangoing around the campsite all night and I wouldn’t have known. Perfect. Now my main concern about getting up in the night was that my tent might blow away without my weight to anchor it.
I spent three happy days at Pasagshak exploring, testing Alaskan camping food, collecting water from a nearby stream and trying to befriend the ‘obnoxious cows’ that turned and fled each time I approached. Reggie, the campsite warden, told me of summer months when the whole bay fills with gray whales, and how they come to the shallows to rub on the rocks. Puzzled that I wasn’t fishing, he delivered some salmon he’d caught and smoked himself. It was delicious.
Had the weather not turned, it would have been difficult to leave this quiet bear-free haven. As it was, fierce winds brought relentless rain that made the return journey an uncomfortable one but the prospect of heated accommodation in Kodiak all the more tempting.
Thar she blows!
Seven miles beyond Pasagshak, Fossil Beach really is the end of the road if not the end of the world. Beside the road, a massive rusting corrall on a massive scale, with tree-trunk fence posts, must have been for the infamous Pasagshak buffalo. Opposite, the swings of a deserted play area swung in the breeze beside a small cabin with smashed windows.
Next, I passed an old rocket launch site with towering fences, signposts to ‘Area 4’ and an evacuation warning system. Eerie tall, windowless buildings stood incongruously against a background of pristine beaches, blue skies and brilliant sunshine. It all felt a bit Russian and I kept on pedalling.
Bald eagles patrolled the cloudless sky over Fossil Beach, where my fossil hunting was cut short by regular showers of rocks from the overhanging cliff above. Instead, I walked the kelp-strewn tide line, balanced on the sun-bleached tree trunks piled up at the back of the beach and ate M&Ms in the sunshine.
My goal was, of course, to find gray whales and I saw them almost immediately after crossing the headland from Pasagshak. Cresting the ridge after a brutally steep uphill struggle, I had excellent views across the bay. Within 10 seconds of stopping on the side of the road, the first blow — a bright white puff of spray — stood out against the sparkling blue sea. Within a couple of minutes, I’d seen clusters of blows from two other locations and counted at least six whales.
The whales were closer to shore by the time I cycled back from Fossil Beach and I stopped again to watch. This time I could make out the backs of the closest whales as they surfaced, with their barely-there dorsal fins and knuckly peduncles. They were still here and I’d seen them.
Kayaking with whales
A week on from my kayaking trip from Pasagshak Bay and the excitement hasn’t even started to fade. I don’t think it’s going to. Jen from Kayak Kodiak was kind enough to drive out to Pasagshak to run a one-person whale-searching tour and we pushed off from the beach into a grey bay with strong winds and rain forecast.
It wasn’t long before we spotted distant blows out beyond the bay. We pushed on, chatting and searching the shoreline for wildlife. As promised, the wind arrived suddenly, a line of ruffled water advancing towards us, and I had to turn to shout to Jen behind me to be heard. Further out and more exposed now, the sea picked up too, the bow of the kayaking lifting and dipping with the waves.
We paddled on keeping our eyes on the blows when all of a sudden there was a blow much closer to us. We were almost there. Barely a few minutes later, the hollow whoosh of a whale’s breath was audible over the wind, then another! After half an hour of paddling we were with two gray whales inside Pasagshak Bay.
They were surfacing regularly, emerging in a flash of white water and sending a plume of spray and vapour into the air with an echoing blast as they rolled forward, already submerging their mottled grey heads again. Sometimes that was it, they just sank back beneath the waves. Other times they arched their scarred backs high out of the water, hinting at their huge size and revealing the knobbly ridge of their back, making us think they might lift their tail fluke clear of the water as they dived. They never did. By paddling from time to time against the wind and waves that pushed us back, we stayed with them, in awe of their size and marvelling at our good luck.
Gray whales aren’t known for the dramatic breaching or fin-slapping of humpback whales, the incredible size of blue whales nor the stealth and speed of the more streamlined rorqual whales. They’re awesome in their own way though, if you ask me. Their skin becomes more mottled as they age, lightened by barnacles past and present. Whale lice also hitch a lift, living amongst the barnacles. The only species of whale to feed on the seafloor, the side with fewer barnacles gives away if the whale’s left or right ‘handed’.
Just as my hands were beginning to complain about the cold, Jen checked her watch and announced that, after almost an hour with the whales, it was time to head back. Assisted by the wind this time, we paddled happily back to shore after the best trip I could have hoped for.
Massive thanks, Jen, for making this trip happen!
Piece by piece
It was in May 2000 that Stacy Studebaker found a dead gray whale washed up on Pasagshak beach and saw an opportunity for the whale to become an educational project. Just four days later, she’d pulled together a team and the whale was buried beneath 10 ft of soil in a trench 45 ft long where it was left to decompose.
The real work began four years later. Piece by piece, the whale’s bones were excavated, cleaned, left outside to be bleached by the sun, then dried in a heated basement. Two years after that, the skeleton was ready to be reassembled, supported by a custom-made steel support system.
Next, the whale was carefully transported to the new Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Centre in five pieces and duly reassembled. In 2007, seven years after first being found, the whale’s skeleton was finally back in one piece.
Now, in 2019, the skeleton display is as impressive as ever, suspended in the visitor centre. I squelched around it in waterlogged shoes having just arrived from Pasagshak myself the day after kayaking with gray whales in the bay. Seen from a kayak or as a skeleton on display, these whales are huge. As big perhaps as the challenge of moving one, although that too was possible piece by piece.
Cruising the marine highway
Day five of life on the M/V Kennicott, sailing the Alaska Marine Highway System, has come around quickly. Day one was an overcast day of adjusting to life onboard, deciphering the café menu (biscuits and gravy anyone? how about some grits?) and watching a group of Dall’s porpoises splash past. The 16 passengers onboard quietly rattled around the 116 metre vessel, reading in the lounge and doing jigsaw puzzles. Our numbers grew that evening after we stopped in Whittier, a tiny outpost connected to Anchorage by a one-way tunnel shared by cars, lorries and trains.
Day two brought challenging sea conditions that kept many passengers in their bunks and had the rest of us staggering around like drunks. Our speed was reduced to 10 knots as we punched into a convincing swell and were engulfed by frequent squalls. It wasn’t until evening that we reached more sheltered waters close to our port call at Yakutat, arriving under the cover of darkness and in a heavy downpour.
The reprieve was short-lived as we headed back out to sea again, although it wasn’t as bad on our return and sleep was possible, albeit in short stretches. Since then we’ve cruised calmer waters through a labyrinth of pine-covered islands. Dark clouds have accompanied us with rain never far away and wisps of lighter mist clinging to the treetops. Smoke rises from the chimneys of the few waterside homes we pass and navigation lights blink from rocky promontories.
The marine mammal hiatus was broken by a group of snoozing sea lions on the imaginatively named Rocky Island, then came a few humpback whale sightings, their light blows standing out against the dark forest. This afternoon was the grand finale, with killer whales, Pacific white-sided dolphins, humpback whales and sea lions in glassy seas.
As we approach Bellingham, having travelled 1,935 miles from Kodiak, it’s time to think of cycling again. Island hopping between San Juan Island and Vancouver Island, then back to the mainland at Port Angeles, will hopefully ease me back into my cycling routine. My schedule gets hectic after that, with ambitiously long days. Let’s see how that goes.
San Juan Island
Admittedly, sunshine can make all the difference and my stay on San Juan Island was gloriously sunny. However, even in the rain — which I experienced in impressive proportions as I left — it would be hard not to like a place where you navigate by old barns and fields of cows. For me, San Juan was an excellently calm stepping-stone from the bubble of the Alaskan ferry to the traffic and tribulations of my next destinations.
As luck would have it, my friend, marine mammal expert Dr Frankie Robertson, lives on the island and very kindly housed, fed and entertained me while I was there. As we drove around, Frankie brought me up to speed on the status of local marine mammal populations, ongoing studies and research questions still to be addressed. Our trip out to Lime Kiln State Park, where killer whales often cruise by close to shore, was cetacean-free but I was lucky enough to meet Jeanne Hyde, Lime Kiln’s resident killer whale expert, whose enthusiasm for all things marine was shared with energy and humour.
Friday Harbor’s Whale Museum contained an abundance of information about the Salish Sea, the local killer whales, gray whales and more. Jars of whale lice sat alongside baleen plates and patches of barnacles still attached to leathery strips of whale skin. A gray whale skeleton was suspended near that of a killer whale and, mindbogglingly, the skeleton of conjoined harbour seal twins found in 2013.
An evening walk on the island’s south coast gave us stunning views across a flat calm Strait of Juan de Fuca to the mountains of mainland Washington. Minke whales, the species we’d come looking for, eluded us. Instead, we watched synchronised teams of diving ducks, foxes in orange and black, a group of otters in the shallows, a bald eagle and grazing deer. Even better, Frankie assured me that — apart from a visitor earlier this year who’d promptly moved on — the island was bear-free. What a place!
Two days on Vancouver Island was nowhere near long enough but I gave it my best shot, visiting the Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea, going whale-watching with Eagle Wing Whale and Wildlife tours and hearing about local marine mammal matters from Dr Anna Hall.
The whale-watching trip started slowly, searching the Salish Sea under sunny skies and a biting wind. Areas that had been brimming with humpback whales just a few days before now yielded nothing. Time slipped away, followed closely by the feeling in my fingers and toes. Then, a blow! Our first humpback whale, heading steadily east. Then two more blows, a pair of humpbacks diving together. Next, a small group of Dall’s porpoise whizzing along so quickly I didn’t even raise my camera. Instead, I watched the black and white torpedoes shooting through the swell in a flurry of splashes. Then, the highlight for me, southern resident killer whales!
The southern resident killer whale population numbers less than 80 individuals and is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The scarcity of salmon (their favoured prey), the presence of persistent organic pollutants in the environment, vessel disturbance and underwater noise are all considered factors in the population’s decline, so it was an honour to see them. Amongst the group was an adult male whose impressively tall dorsal fin just kept on rising out of the water, and a mother-calf pair, one of only a few calves born to the population in recent times. Massive thanks to Eagle Wing tours and Anna for such an incredible trip!
In other news, whilst camping in the ancient rainforest of Goldstream Park, I coped bravely with my fellow forest inhabitants. Paw-steps around my tent prompted only occasional outbursts of abuse and I slept through an assault on my bear canister entirely. Having seen my first live raccoon of the trip the evening before, I put the attack down to the little masked bandits, probably nothing to do with bears at all.
Neah Bay, close to the most northwesterly point of the contiguous US, was a bit of a detour for me but — as the home of the Makah Tribe — an important stop. Unfortunately, my short visit didn’t allow me to meet any of the Makah Tribe but I found the Makah Museum fascinating.
Much of the museum is dedicated to the story of Ozette, a Makah village that was buried by a mudslide approximately 500 years ago, then increasingly exposed by coastal erosion in 1969. A huge operation was launched to salvage not just artefacts from the village but also confirmation of the Makah’s way of life at that time.
As well as the Ozette operation, the museum outlined the seasonal patterns of subsistence of the tribe, including the springtime gray whale hunt. The hunt was halted in 1920 after commercial whaling had dramatically reduced the gray whale population. Since the eastern Pacific gray whale population was removed from the endangered list in 1994, the Makah have been keen to resume subsistence whaling. The discussions regarding this are still ongoing.
As well as the gray whales that pass close to shore during the northward migration in spring, some gray whales (the Pacific coast feeding group) remain in the Oregon-Washington-SE Alaska region until autumn and I was lucky enough to spot one from shore. I’d camped out at Hobuck Beach, four miles from Neah Bay, and had braved the mosquitoes to look for whales as I ate my supper on the beach. All was quiet. My luck changed in the morning though, when blows rose up from beyond the surf. A gray whale!
Visiting La Push, home to the Quileute Tribe, required another detour but was absolutely worth it to chat with tribal member Emily Foster, editor of the official newsletter of the Quilete Tribe The Talking Raven, over lunch. I’ve been reading Howard Hansen’s depictions of Quileute life in La Push in the book ‘Twilight on the Thunderbird’ but to hear about life in current times was just as interesting.
Turns out La Push was the setting for Twilight, which I’m led to believe is a tale of vampires, wolves and angst. Fans of the series have since boosted visitor numbers to Forks and La Push. Not really my thing but La Push is certainly a spectacular setting. If you can picture a dense, lichen-cloaked forest running down to a craggy coastline where pines perch atop rocky islands and surf crashes onto sandy beaches littered with bleached tree trunks, that’s La Push and it’s beautiful.
The gray whales are most apparent here in spring as they migrate north. Then, a Welcoming of the Whales ceremony is held, with prayers, singing and dancing on the beach. The ceremony, first held back when the Quileute would hunt the whales, continues although the whaling has long since stopped. An offering of salmon is paddled into the bay, representing the importance of the sea and its inhabitants to the Quiluete Tribe. If I can time my next visit to La Push to coincide with the ceremony, all the better.
One month in!
As of Sunday, it’s been a month since I arrived in America. In many ways, the time has flown by (not on the hills so much, perhaps) and the journey has already been quite the adventure! Here are some summary stats (up until Sun 20th Oct).
Countries visited: 2 (USA and Canada)
US States visited: 3 (Alaska, Washington and Oregon)
Miles cycled: 602
Cumulative elevation gained (m): 6,704
Number of sore knees: 2
Number of punctures: 4
Times gray whales seen: 2 (Pasagshak Bay, Alaska and Neah Bay, Washington)
Other cetacean species seen: humpback whales, killer whales, Dall’s porpoise, Pacific white-sided dolphins
This has already been my longest stay in America and, at times, the learning curve has been steep. My first five minutes in Oregon were almost my last as I encountered another variety of zebra crossing. I’ve mastered cycling on the right though, and bagels. Pretzels and the tiny, ill-fitting cubicle doors in ‘restrooms’ still confuse me.
Life on the road has been even tougher than I expected. The wind and rain have far exceeded anything that Scotland prepared me for. Turns out Scotland knows nothing of rain. And while cycling through heavy rain for hours on end, with my toes squelching in my shoes, is miserable, having to stand on the narrow hard-shoulder for up to an hour wrestling with a puncture while lorries swoosh past, sending waves of spray down my neck, is even worse. By the time I get moving again, I’m cold, plastered in road grime, behind schedule and fed up. There’ve been five punctures so far this trip, three in the last three days. They often cost me the crucial bit of daylight I need to reach my destination and the frequent micro-tweaks to my plan will, sooner or later, amount to a bigger tweak. But, for now, I’m pushing on while I can.
In terms of distance to cycle, the bulk still lies ahead of me and the hills will continue. The lure of warmer, drier weather and further gray whale encounters — both of the Pacific coast feeding group and migrating whales — encourage me onwards and I’m hoping my knees will cooperate. Here’s to the next month, whatever it may hold.
I was wave-watching rather than whale-watching as I stood by the sea wall in Depoe Bay last week. The huge swells rolling in sent white-water crashing over a rocky headland, dazzling in the welcome sunshine. Returning waves collided with incoming ones, exploding vertically. As mesmerising as the waves were, these were tough conditions for spotting whales. But then a thin veil of spray rose from just beyond the headland. Then another, followed by the mottled back of a gray whale glistening in the sunlight, an awesome surprise.
The small town of Depoe Bay on the Oregon coast is a whale-watching hot spot. Even out of season there were constantly people pausing along the sea wall to spot blows, many equipped with binoculars. The whale-watching companies that run boat trips from June to October while some of the Pacific Coast Feeding Group are around had stopped for winter just a week before. Unfortunately, the Oregon State Parks Whale Watching Centre — usually open year-round — was also temporarily closed for maintenance but would be open again before the next Whale Watching Week in December at the peak of the southward migration.
Happy with my gray whale sighting, I cycled out of town. Keen to reach Newport in good time, I almost didn’t stop at Rocky Creek State Scenic viewpoint just a couple of miles south of Depoe Bay. The number of parked cars and the sight of someone on the cliff edge with binoculars piqued my interest though. Wheeling my laden bike over the grass, more spectators came into view on a rocky promontory, lining the footpath and standing on the same grassy headland as me, all looking over a small cove. Between the waves, a blow from the centre of the cove, then another close to the first and, out of the corner of my eye, a third right in near the rocks. Three gray whales and they were so close!
As the closest two surfaced through the swells, I could make out their narrow heads, pale with barnacles, then their blows and rolling backs, sometimes a glimpse of their tail flukes just below the surface as they dived again. As I watched, the whales gradually moved this way then that, nearer then further from my viewpoint. Then there were two. Still the crowds remained, as hooked as I was. If I hadn’t had a bike shop to reach I could have stayed there all day, watching the gray whales in Whale Cove.
Whilst waiting on new tyres, I spent almost a week in Newport and could hear the barking of sea lions almost everywhere I went. Camping in the forest at South Beach State Park, between the highway and the sea, the sound of the sea lions reached me over the rush of traffic and the roar of the surf. It was a few days before I visited them at the docks on the north side of the bay where they entertain daily crowds with their shouts and squabbles.
Yaquina lighthouse, on a headland to the north of the bay, was the wind-blasted scene of a chilly wedding shoot and some skateboarding practise. With the sea cloaked in white caps and the wind making my eyes water, I didn’t spend too long looking for whales. Instead, a flight of stone steps took me down to a sheltered beach with rock pools filled with slime-green anemones, spiny purple sea urchins and dark red starfish delicately laced with white. It was tempting to stay and search for further treasures but the sun was sinking and the park would soon close.
The South Beach area of Newport, south of the bridge, is a hive of marine biology research and the site of Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Centre. There, the Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna (GEMM) Lab, headed by Assistant Professor Leigh Torres, is studying the foraging ecology, body condition, hormone levels and behaviours of the local gray whales under different environmental, ocean noise and prey conditions. It was fascinating to hear more about this work from Prof. Torres and to chat gray whales with Dr. Bruce Mate and Masters student Clara Bird (hopefully more details to follow soon).
Not far from Hatfield Marine Science Centre is Newport Aquarium, where I passed a drizzly afternoon watching sea otters. After being hunted almost to extinction for their fur, sea otter numbers have increased both to the north and to the south but not yet in Oregon. There’ve been a few sightings though, a sea otter recovery could still occur. A recent blog post from the GEMM lab discusses the possible role of otters in combating the dramatic ecosystem shift from productive kelp forests to purple sea urchin barrens that has been observed in northern California following an increase in sea surface temperature and reduced urchin predation as a result of sea star wasting disease. Some areas of southern Oregon have also experienced recent losses of kelp forests and a resurgence of the marine heatwave of 2014 — nicknamed The Blob — makes these matters all the more urgent. In the meantime, I’ll need to wait until California to see sea otters in the wild.
With sunny days and chilly nights, and an abundance of sea life and cafes, Newport was an excellent place to pass some time. Now, with new tyres fitted, I’m excited to be on the move again.
A whale on a beach is quite a sight. Even after attending plenty of whale strandings over the years, I am still shocked when the true scale of a whale on the shore hits home. The sheer height of it, the size of a pectoral fin, the width of the fluke, the incredible mass right there, almost immovable.
Having overheard a conversation in a coffee shop about a recently stranded gray whale, I knew I had to backtrack to see it. The rare opportunity to see one of these whales I’m following up close far outweighed the effort required to cover an additional and unexpected 14 miles that dank and foggy day.
Back at Patrick’s Point State Park, a ranger explained which trail to take to Agate Beach and that the whale was half a mile north. Down at sea level, waves crashed onto the fine shingle, white-water rushing up the sloped beach. The beach, sea and sky were all monochrome in the thick fog.
A dark shape at the water’s edge became more whale-like as I slogged through the shingle. A team of scientists from Humboldt State Univeristy (HSU) were to-ing and fro-ing with cameras, samples and elbow-length gloves. A ranger and a couple more bystanders, like me, stood back watching the activity, wrapped up against the cold. On his side on the sloping shore, one pectoral fin raised to the sky, was an adult male gray whale. His open jaw revealed pale baleen plates and a blue-grey tongue. Seagulls pecked at freshly cut square holes where blubber samples had been collected and blubber thickness measured; this guy was on the thin side.
Chatting with a scientist from HSU, I heard of their efforts to identify the individual and collect what samples they could. The whale was too decomposed to warrant a full necropsy but any information they could glean would be valuable during the ongoing Unusual Mortality Event.
Sporadic wafts of decomposing whale kept me at bay and I took photos with my telephoto lens, trying to capture both the intricate detail of the whale and its imposing size, this creature that had swum thousands of miles at sea and now looked so alien on the shore. Finally, I left, turning often to look back until the whale was once again just a dark shape in the fog and then gone.
The sharp crack as I crawled up a series of stupidly steep switchbacks in granny gear sounded serious but it was the wobbly back wheel and the rubbing brakes that confirmed a glitch. I was racing the sun at the time and pushed on. The sunset won and it wasn’t until this morning that I could see my first broken spoke. Shucks.
The nearest bike shop is a hilly 29 miles back the way I came. Not too bad, you might think, I can hop on the bus and be on the road again in the blink of an eye. Except today’s a holiday and the once-a-day bus service isn’t running. Tomorrow then! Except the mechanic in that bike shop is away for a week. The next closest bike shop is 39 miles back the way I came. They can only help if the spoke can be replaced without the tubeless tyre needing to come off, which I’m very much hoping it can.
I knew this journey would be tough and it is. It’s even harder than I expected. I thought the cycling might get a little easier as I built up the miles but, if anything, the miles are getting harder. And I didn’t expect these kinds of logistics — part and parcel of the journey though they are — to be so time-consuming and utterly frustrating.
There are lots of exciting gray whale opportunities coming up as I head south and that’s keeping me going. I’m getting short of time to make the most of those opportunities though, and unexpected delays such as these aren’t helping. Striking a balance between cycling the whales’ migration route, meeting the people with links to these whales, and having the time to record and share the journey, is becoming increasingly difficult. Any wise words will be gratefully accepted.
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
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.
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.
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 whether 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.
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 laugh 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 was 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.
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 heartbreaking 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.
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 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!
“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.
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 exhaled 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.
One year on
It’s already been nearly a year and a half since I touched down on Kodiak Island, reassembled my bike and gingerly pedalled onto the ‘wrong’ side of the highway, my sights set firmly on Baja. After months of anticipation it was exciting to finally be on the road, albeit on a small island with a big bear population and savage weather.
Fast forward a couple of weeks and the daily routine of cycling a heavily laden bike through the Pacific Northwest in autumn was becoming second nature, even if the cycling itself was still a struggle. Logging trucks engulfed me in cold spray as they roared past and hard shoulder debris punctured my tyres. I’d seen gray whales though, plus killer whales, bears and raccoons, and I’d woken in my tent beside vast lakes, rivers, dune-backed beaches and ancient temperate rainforest. The relief of waking in the quiet early morning as the daylight transformed the sinister campsite of the previous evening, when danger had lurked in every shadow, into a tranquil campsite complete with flitting birds and territorial squirrels, was immense.
Fast forward a couple of months and I was borderline feral, happily eating instant noodles for breakfast as well as for supper. Noodles and muffins. As gradually as the miles had clicked by, I’d accepted I wouldn’t make it to Baja by bike. Instead, I made the most of the places I reached, meeting with as many people as possible and learning as much as I could. A few days in Monterey stretched into a week as I met local experts to hear more about gray whales, osedax worms, killer whales, sea otters and local conservation initiatives, and passed happy hours whale-watching and visiting the aquarium. Camping was still enjoyable and, getting late in the year, I often had the hiker-biker area to myself, local wildlife aside.
Nearly three months later, my time was up and I flew home from Los Angeles, already hatching plans to return. Having landed back in the UK days before Christmas, it initially felt hasty to fly back out to LA in early February. Those worries subsided with each southbound whale I spotted from the end of Ocean Beach Pier, San Diego and had evaporated entirely by the time I bumped across the choppy waters of Scammon’s lagoon near Guerrero Negro, Baja Sur. There, the whales I’d sought, searching from clifftops, headlands and roadside laybys, came to me. Why they’d do that puzzled me beyond measure, then and now. Getting a close-up view, an arm’s length view, of these long-distance travellers, with their barnacle and whale lice passengers, was incredible.
Almost 18 months on, and over a year into the global Covid-19 pandemic, I treasure my memories of this journey more than ever, particularly grateful I returned so soon to complete my journey. Except it still doesn’t feel over. With plenty more to write and hours of video to edit, the endless cycle of the gray whales’ migration continuing and the mysterious western population to ponder, I have plenty to keep me going until travel restrictions ease and I can get back on my bike, on the trail of the gray whales.