‘Soundings’ is a memoir, a meditation and an adventure to follow the migration of gray whales : NPR

Scott Simon talks to journalist Doreen Cunningham about his new book ‘Soundings: Journeys in the Company of Whales’.


Doreen Cunningham has written a book that is a memoir, a meditation, and an adventure, both for the whales that migrate from Baja California to the Arctic and for those other mammals we call human beings. “Soundings” tells the story – and it is her story – of a single mother who takes her 2-year-old son Max on a hike to follow this migration of gray whales and the paths by which we all try to navigate this which can be a forbidden world. Joining us now is Doreen Cunningham. Thank you very much for being with us.

DOREEN CUNNINGHAM: Thank you for inviting me.

SIMON: Throughout this book, you seem to enter into the minds and hearts of whales in a way that seeks kinship. What do you see as this kind of relationship between our two species?

CUNNINGHAM: Whales are a species on which I have always drawn my strength. They were very present in my childhood. I was born around the time the Save the Whales campaign was born. We could hear their voices. I grew up on a small island, so I was always in the sea. But when I became a single mother, I had been through a few difficult years. Learning about the gray whale migration really inspired me because of their endurance, how they keep going through hardships, and it helped me when I was finding life difficult.

SIMON: Yeah. Can I ask you to tell us about it because it was a confluence of circumstances that were really difficult to live with in life?

CUNNINGHAM: I had had a messy breakup and found I couldn’t afford enough childcare to continue my job. I had been in family court with my ex, and ended up more or less penniless, living in a homeless shelter for single parents on the island of Jersey, where I grew up. And I found it practically difficult to fit into freelance work around my son, very difficult financially to even afford to eat. I basically became a charity case almost overnight.

SIMON: Why of all these times did you decide to pursue this path?

CUNNINGHAM: Well, I was trying to make life work where we were in the shelter. And whales, as I said, have been kind of an inspiration to me throughout my life. It’s my daydream if I just want to get away from reality. And that’s what I was doing one night. You know, I was at the shelter for about a year. I was completely worn out. So I was reading about whales online instead of doing my editing one evening when I stumbled across an article about gray whales, which I didn’t know much about. They are a little uglier. They don’t jump or trick tourists. But then to learn that they make this epic migration from the lagoons of Baja Mexico and then to the feeding grounds of the Arctic every year – it was just astounding to me. So I decided to escape.

SIMON: And I think a lot of people will wonder why bring a young son in there?

CUNNINGHAM: Well, I wanted to share with him what had been the most wonderful part of my life. And being confined within the four walls of the shelter where we were living and confined by my financial situation and confined by the way society treats single parents – you know, very little support, not valued, not paid – I felt tremendously grief over what I couldn’t give her. I hadn’t been able to give him the nuclear family that we are all meant to aspire to. And I wasn’t even able to make simple choices in our lives about what we were going to wear and what we were going to eat. I just had to take whatever was on offer. And I was really grateful for the support I got, but I wanted to show him the world.

SIMON: What did you and your son see in whale mothers and sons, do you think?

CUNNINGHAM: It was amazing that they trusted us. They arrived at the boats. And these are lagoons where, in the 1850s and 1860s, gray whales were slaughtered to near extinction in commercial whaling operations. And for a long time they were aggressive towards boats. But then, in the 70s, a local fisherman called Pachico developed a relationship with some of them, and from there this incredible phenomenon evolved. They play. They will hit the boats. And what happened when we were there was that the female was a little way off the boat, you know, this 12-meter-long animal was dozing. And the baby whale was going around the boat and hitting it. And one of the people on the boat said, oh, we’re free daycare. And I think that’s probably about it. She was pausing, but the playfulness and the confidence – it was like a gift.

SIMON: And of course climate change comes into play.

CUNNINGHAM: The gray whales that we were tracking — because they travel so far, they’re considered an indicator species for changes happening in the ocean. And they’re also remarkable animals because they’re so flexible and have dealt with climate change in the past. So their behavior is really interesting and for me very promising in a way. What is happening now is that there is a group of whales called the Sounders who have found a new food source in the waters of Puget Sound off Washington State. One of the founders is a whale nicknamed Earhart by researchers. It was first seen in the area in 1990, when there was high mortality. And right now, there’s another death going on. A large number of gray whales have died and many of them are emaciated. And at the same time, the number of whales joining the Sounders and Earhart, who was seen leading these whales to this ghost shrimp food source near the shore, is increasing. Thus the whales interrupt their migration, feed on shrimp and leave fattened. And that’s amazing behavior for me, who is, you know, very worried about what the future holds for me and my children in terms of climate change.

SIMON: But does your son remember what you did together? What does he do, what does he get out of it, do you think?

CUNNINGHAM: What he remembers most clearly is when we were on a boat one time, he was turning the wheel. It was extremely exciting for him at the time. It was a fake rudder, but he remembers being there and thinking he was steering the boat. And I like that because him at the helm is a good way for him to start thinking about his life. And I asked him, you know, if he remembered about the book. He said something really perfect, it’s just that he likes to think of whales swimming, and sometimes he likes to think of himself swimming with them. And, you know, that’s what I set out to do – to make him feel accompanied by the incredible life that we share the planet with.

SIMON: Doreen Cunningham – her book “Soundings: Journeys In The Company Of Whales” – thank you so much for being with us.

CUNNINGHAM: Thank you.

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