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!

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

Stranded

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.