“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.
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.
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 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.
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 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 set at the
time and pushed on. The sun 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 wasn’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 their 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 gratefully accepted.
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 toing and froing 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
measures; 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 on-going 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.
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 increased sea surface temperatures of 2014 – 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.