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.

Depoe Bay

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.

Neah Bay

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 for 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.

Taking photos in the museum was prohibited but these postcards give an idea of life in the Pacific northwest

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!

Check out the blow beyond the wave!

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 any other 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!

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 knuckley peduncles. They were still here and I’d seen them.