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Journeys in the Company of Whales: A Memoir


About The Book

“A gorgeous journey…You will be glad you’ve joined her.” —Susan Orlean, author of On Animals and The Library Book

In this lyrical memoir of motherhood, love, and resilience that “captures rarely observed natural places” (San Francisco Chronicle) a woman and her toddler son follow the grey whale migration from Mexico to northernmost Alaska.

In this “striking, brave[,] and often lyrical” (The Guardian) blend of nature writing, whale science, and memoir, Doreen Cunningham interweaves two stories: tracking the extraordinary northward migration of the grey whales with a mischievous toddler in tow and living with an Iñupiaq family in Alaska seven years earlier.

A story of courage and resilience, Soundings is about the migrating whales and all we can learn from them as they mother, adapt, and endure, their lives interrupted and threatened by global warming. It is also a riveting journey onto the Arctic Sea ice and into the changing world of Indigenous whale hunters, where Doreen becomes immersed in the ancient values of the Iñupiaq whale hunt and falls in love. Big-hearted, brave, and fearlessly honest, Soundings is an unforgettable journey.


1. Los Angeles LOS ANGELES
Latitude: 33° 59' 40" N

Longitude: 118° 28' 57" W

The immigration man in Los Angeles glares at me, then looks down at Max and gives a beautiful smile. Toddling along like a penguin, carrying his mini-rucksack, shouting his name when asked, he’s like a magic spell that lights people up. I clutch my paperwork but the official doesn’t look at it, just waves us straight through.

My friend Marie is waiting for us in the arrivals hall and stretches her arms wide when she sees us. She has a six-month-old asleep in a buggy. The air outside is warm and dry, making Max and me wriggle out of our coats while Marie drives us across LA. Spindly palm trees look down from above, their fronds tousled by the wind. It’s late when we arrive at her apartment in Venice Beach. She has a little boy, Max’s age, as well as the baby. The toddlers scribble chalk on a blackboard together while Marie and I have tea and talk about the trip I’ve booked. We’re meeting a tour group in San Diego and will drive to Baja for two weeks of whale watching.

“Then to the Arctic?” she says. “That’s far.” Marie knows the north. I first met her on the plane to Utqiagvik. Squashed into adjacent seats, we’d admired each other’s ski jackets as the aircraft landed. The view was white in whichever direction you looked, and the bottle of water I was carrying had begun to form ice crystals before we’d walked ten yards off the plane. By the end of my stay the cold had transformed me too. Some places are just like that. You come back different or perhaps you don’t come back at all. Marie’s having been to Utqiagvik helps me. I guess astronauts must like to see each other sometimes too, after coming back from the moon.

“We’re splitting the journey,” I tell her. Max and I can’t travel for more than a month without first jumping through legal hoops. “Two one-month trips. Mexico first, then home, and then we’ll come back to follow the whales north.”

“I’ll get to see you twice!”

Marie asks how I can afford it all, so I tell her about the phone call to the bank. We were on the beach, Max racing barefoot on the sand, squealing as he watched his footprints trailing off behind him. I was on the phone, cupping my hand against the wind.

“Are you still working, still staff?” the man in the call center asked. I was inquiring, ever so casually, about the possibility of a loan.

“Yes.” I held my breath. He had my account in front of him. It must have been clear that I absolutely was not staff anymore, was barely working. There was a pause. If I could hold my breath until he spoke, it would be a yes, I told myself.

“Okay, that’s all done for you. Ten thousand pounds should be in your account within five days.”

Marie tells me I’m brave. “You boys have drawn a storm,” she says, admiring their chaotic chalk artwork. Max and I curl together on her sofa bed in the living room for the night, savoring the pleasure of being in a family home.

The hostel was almost full when we moved in. Our room was on the second floor, four fire doors and eight stair gates from the outside world, sealed off from it. Ashley, in the room beside ours, was a legal secretary, originally from South Africa. She had a boy of five. Magda, next one along, was Polish with three children. Angelina, down one floor, was from Madeira. There was a yard with trikes and a plastic slide where the children played. We swapped court experiences while we cooked in the shared kitchen. When we talked about the events that had brought us here, we could have been reading from the same script. Angelina and I didn’t receive benefits, she because of her immigration status, I because I owned a flat. But I had a laptop and freelance work that was reasonably paid, while Angelina’s only option was to work long shifts in a CD warehouse, for minimum wage. I was privileged. On the days Angelina’s ex let her down with childcare, the rest of us babysat her daughter so she could still work. On the days I was tired from working at night, I was careful not to complain.

Gradually, my new friends moved into local authority flats or rooms in shared houses. Over Christmas the hostel was empty, apart from Max and me.

Then it started to fill up again, and Nicola moved in.

“Your hair is lovely,” I said, while sitting on Nicola’s bed one evening. She and her four-year-old, Will, were the only other family on my floor. The doors to our rooms were open so I’d hear from down the corridor if Max, now eighteen months old, woke.

“You should try using mousse, it would give your hair some body,” Nicola said, picking up a canister from her dressing table. Hair wasn’t my thing, but Nicola used to be a hairdresser and I was trying to be friendly, to give us something to talk about. Her hair moved in a shimmering chestnut curtain, drawing the light, as she walked the corridors of the hostel. She reminded me of the ringleader girls at school, the ones I avoided in the playground, who laughed and sang “ugly” as I passed. She examined her perfectly polished red nails as she talked.

“I need to go soon,” I said. “I’ve got a deadline.” I yawned, exhausted just thinking about it.

Nicola lifted her chin and looked at me sideways, down her nose. “I’m not interested in working.” She’d returned to Jersey from Manchester when she and her boyfriend split, she said, and hoped to be allocated a flat by the States of Jersey soon. “You don’t get anywhere in life by being nice, you know. I read this book, Gusty Girls Have Better Lives. When I read it, I thought, ‘That’s me, I’m gusty.’?”

Gusty? Do you mean g—

The windows rattled and we both looked up. It was a windy night. An image of Nicola being blown around came to mind, hair streaming out behind her like a superhero’s cape as she gusted through the room.

Gusty Girls Get Ahead, Good Girls Don’t. That was the title.” She paused. “You should read it.”

I nodded. “Got to do some work. Thanks for the mousse.”

Max lay spread-eagled on the mattress in his striped sleep suit. I went downstairs to get a glass of water before starting.

Kayleigh was in the kitchen. Of all the new residents, I liked her best. She was foulmouthed like me, streetwise as I would never be. She’d told me about the fights with her boyfriend and family. “I just want all the control freaks out of my life,” she’d said. I could relate. I’d given her a pair of silk-lined black leather gloves, a present from Pavel that I couldn’t quite bring myself to donate to a charity shop. She’d tried them on, danced her fingers through the air, and pushed back her white-blond hair. “I look like Marilyn Monroe!”

Kayleigh was unlocking her food cupboard. She took out a bag of penne and moved across the kitchen with balletic grace, despite her growing pregnant belly. A group was smoking and chatting in the concrete yard outside the kitchen, Nicola among them. They looked up and I waved through the open door. Nicola turned away. She said something and the group laughed. I busied myself with nothing in the sink.

“Don’t worry about it,” Kayleigh said quietly, tilting her head toward the door. “They can’t stand to see anyone doing something with their life, who’s on their way out of here.”

I wasn’t sure what she meant. I smiled and said good night, nothing more. Going up the stairs, I felt heavy. A woman in the room underneath me started shouting down the phone, waking Max. I fed him until his body relaxed against mine. The shouting from the floor below started again. I couldn’t understand what was being said, but she was getting really angry. Max sat up and started to cry. I banged on the floor. It went quiet. I fed him back to sleep and worked until 3:00 a.m.

The next day I had a Skype meeting with a client in Geneva. The hostel had no Wi-Fi and my mobile connection was unreliable, so I took Max to a nearby café. I chose a table with a backdrop of blank wall and angled Max opposite me in his buggy. He had his face in a croissant. I put on my headset and waited for the call.

“Yes. We need to talk about periods,” I said loudly as the meeting got going. We were discussing girls in low-income countries missing school when menstruating. A room of customers in suits turned to look. I’d made a big effort that morning, actually brushed my hair, but was scruffy from the shoulders down. I narrowed my focus to the screen to block out the staring. Amrita, the sanitation expert, felt frustrated at how little attention the issues were getting and used the word shit liberally, for shock value. I had to say shit a lot too, to show commitment.

“Do you have the figures for the rural shit?” I asked. “If people shit in the fields and it goes into the water, then… Yes, I’ll make sure that point is strong.”

A customer loudly ordered a latte as I finished speaking.

“Are you in a café?” asked Amrita.

“It’s a communal work space.” I wasn’t sure my café setup was professional enough for this team. Max finished his croissant and squawked. I clamped my hand over the mic.

“Is there something wrong with the line?” said Amrita.

“Yes, there seems to be a bit of interference.”

By the end of the call I could smell my sweat. How did other broke single parents of small children survive? How long could I keep this up?

Half a year passed by. The hostel got smaller, the corridors narrower, the staircases steeper. Nicola mostly ignored me, but whenever we met, Will would joyfully charge into Max. At half Will’s age and size, Max always came off worse. I walked in on Nicola’s birthday party one lunchtime. A group were sitting around the kitchen table. The chocolates I’d given her were placed on the side.

“Party, Mummy!” said Max. Nicola looked up. I smiled. She resumed her conversation. I didn’t know where to look. We ate in our room.

Whenever I had time for a break, I met Angelina and Ashley in parks. Pushing the children on the swings, watching them on the slide, looking out beyond the fence of the playground, I felt as if I were in a cage for mothers. Sometimes at night, when Max was asleep, I’d carefully unpack and put on the fur cap Billy had given me when I was in Utqiagvik.

“Beaver fur,” he’d said. “The warmest.” I’d remember his voice as I pulled the earflaps down to muffle the world and think about being out on the sea ice, watching the dark ocean rise and fall against the white edge.

One morning in January, after another late night in front of the laptop, I wandered groggily with Max into the hostel kitchen. A few families were making breakfast, Nicola too. Will ran across the room into Max, knocking him over. His head bounced off the floor. Not again. Every time we were in the same room as Will, Max got hurt.

That morning I was too sleepy to control my reaction. “Oh, for God’s sake, Will.” I picked up Max and held him until he stopped crying, then climbed over the baby gate to get to my food cupboard.

“I think it’s up to me to tell off my child,” said Nicola.

The air around me went cold. Taking a stand was not my usual style, but I was somehow unable to bring myself to apologize.

“Are you talking to me?” I tried to sound blasé. Although practiced at challenging people from behind microphones, in real life my usual strategy was to go quiet or run away.


“If Will hurts Max, I will tell him not to.” I was short of breath, had to push out each word.

“You have to let them sort it out themselves or they will get bullied.”

My stomach jolted. Was it fight or flight? “Oh, piss off,” said a voice. My voice. “He’s only two years old.” It was fight. I was surging anger and blood. I was going to war. The last time I’d felt like that I’d been eleven. I’d hit Lisa Clark on the netball court because she wouldn’t stop calling me names. “Fuck off,” I added loudly, knowing then that I would have to leave the hostel. Nicola disappeared. The kitchen emptied around me. I was no longer pretending any of this was okay. Fuck this. Fuck Nicola. Fuck everyone. Fuck the whole fucking world. Fuck off.

When I wake up on the sofa bed, it takes me a few seconds to realize Max and I are in Marie’s house, to remember how far we’ve traveled. There’s an orange and a lemon tree bathing in Californian spring sunshine outside the window. We eat breakfast with the family, and when her husband goes to work, Max and I join Marie at mommy-and-baby yoga. We’re surrounded by moms in LA Fitness uniforms.

“Stand like a froggy, Mummy,” Max shouts, climbing all over me when we are doing downward dog. The others shush him. I want to get out. We are asked to share what gives us fire and passion. I try to talk about loving my son but speak so quietly no one can hear and I can’t make it louder. Walking back, Marie wonders aloud what it’s like for Max, me being a single mother. Her son is always asking for Daddy, she says. I want to get out again, but I’m out already.

Marie is having lunch with her work colleagues so I walk with Max to Venice Beach. It’s huge and open. Lots of little shells. I take long, deep breaths and start to feel lighter. I always feel at home when I’m by the sea, watching the waves. Even more at home when I’m in them. This ocean is vast and wild, though, not suitable for Max and me to swim in. I sketch a map of the migration route on the sand. The thin Baja Peninsula, a wiggling line up the North American west coast, a dramatic swerve out into the Gulf of Alaska past the Aleutian Islands chain, and a jagged hump over the top of the continent. I take a little boxwood sperm whale out of my pocket for Max to play with. The whale travels everywhere with me. It’s intricately carved, with a gentle curve to the mouth, a hint of a smile. Max scoots it across the sand.

When I was four, my mother gave me a children’s Bible, large and beautifully illustrated. On the first page was a yellow map of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, and right in the middle, in the Mediterranean Sea, was a sperm whale, mouth slightly agape. It was the only real character on the map, with the train of camels and men in the boat too small to hold any expression. The whale was a clue, like seeing a letter before you have learned the alphabet but already know it’s a symbol, with secrets to impart. It was more spellbinding than any unicorn. In my Bible, Jonah and the Whale was the final story of the Old Testament section. A picture showed Jonah kneeling, bowed, praying, in the swirling gray vortex of the whale’s insides. In the story, after three days and three nights, the whale, a benevolent force, had delivered Jonah to safety.

When I was six, we moved from Wales to Jersey, into a former stables in a ramshackle granite farm complex. As an island child, I knew the sea was all around. At any given time I’d know if the tide was high or low, and I tested my strength in the currents. On Friday evenings Dad took me, my sister, and my brother to swimming lessons, but I dreaded them. I’d thought I was drowning once, when the instructor had shouted at us to let go of the side. One Friday I hid, on the top shelf of the airing cupboard.

“Doreen?” Dad called, sounding cross. I heard his footsteps coming up the stairs, held my breath in my cave behind the towels and sheets. He went down again and called for me outside. Then I heard the car leave. I stayed curled up, safe and happy in invisibility. After this success I hid on Sunday morning too, to avoid going to mass with my mother. She, though, was a more determined sleuth and routed me out. Once Dad realized I didn’t like swimming lessons, he didn’t make me go. Instead he would book a Ping-Pong table and we’d play while the others swam. I was awful at Ping-Pong but I loved the time alone with him. And instead of in the chlorinated pool, I mostly learned to swim, by trial and error, in the sea.

Dad was a quiet man, often lost to the world in his hobbies. A biologist, he had a way with animals that I copied studiously. On workdays, he regularly came in without saying hello and didn’t speak until asked a direct question or unless he had something functional to express. He would usually eat breakfast in silence, only speaking to say goodbye to my mom when he kissed her.

“I wonder if there is a word for the silent way he is?” she said once, as the door clicked shut behind him. My parents often argued. My father would be quiet, my mother shouting. I did not want to be like her, I decided, with her yelling and blaming. I wanted to be like him.

There was a time when Dad took us swimming nearly every day. This was a period when my mother had very bad depression. Cold, wavy days were the best, when the sea played rough, uninhibited and violently free. It was so exciting being tossed up on top of the breakers. All the colors muted, nothing fancy. Deep greens, muddy brown, and the smashed-up gray of the tumbling clouds. I liked being in the same body of water as my dad. On the calmer days, when you could see where you were going, I would follow his long white shape as he frog-stroked. We were sea mammals then, with the cold current on our skin. Fingers welded together like fins. My brother, sister, and I would swim between each other’s legs underwater or terrify each other by pretending to have seen a shark approaching. The whole family, Mom included, took night swims in the phosphorescence, an experience so astonishing that when I hauled myself out in the moonlight, I wasn’t sure I had fully retrieved me, that part of me wasn’t left there among the sparks in the water.

On the highest tide of the century, we drove to Archirondel, a shingle beach on the east coast. Men in waders were fishing from the parking lot. The water had risen to shining puddles on the tarmac. The change was too much to take in. I felt terror as slick as the night-bright water and added sea-level rise to the list of silent bidding prayers, inspired by school and the news, that I would reel off at mass. On Sundays I’d kneel, like Jonah in the picture, in the pew. Dear God, please don’t let there be a nuclear bomb, or another ice age, please stop anything else going extinct like the dodo, please stop the acid rain, please stop people killing the whales and dolphins and seals. If I forgot an item on the list, I’d feel uneasy all week.

By the time I was seven, Save the Whales was in full swing, Greenpeace having selected whales as their first ecological campaign in the year I was born. Whales were either blue-tinged angels gliding peacefully below the waves, leaping into the air with wings outstretched, or huge, collapsed, bloody carcasses being dragged onto factory ships. Sometimes they were on TV, as the people in Zodiac inflatables, which flashed orange against the dark water, tried to get in the way of the harpooners’ sights. The Rainbow Warrior, Greenpeace’s flamboyant three-masted campaign ship, once docked in St. Helier harbor to refuel, following an escape from a naval base in northern Spain, where it had been held after harassing the Spanish whaling fleet. The public were allowed onboard. I spoke to a bearded sailor, told him I loved whales, and asked to join the crew. He laughed, showed me around, and gave me a handful of stickers and badges to add to my collection. I’ve still got one of my Greenpeace badges. Most showed rorquals, the largest group of baleen whales, which include humpbacks, minkes, and blues. I didn’t recognize one of the whales, so I put that badge away in a box and it survived. It shows a mother and a baby, swimming together. They do not have a dorsal fin, just knobbles on their backs, and they are gray.

Another ship, which would not make the news until decades later, was also at sea during this period of my childhood. The Esso Atlantic was a supertanker, the fourth-largest ship in the world and flagship of the Exxon International fleet. As it cruised the Atlantic, crossing paths with humpbacks and southern right whales, sophisticated sampling equipment in the belly of the ship took measurements from surface waters and the air to investigate the carbon cycle and the role of the ocean in storing CO2 emissions.1 It was unprecedented research, led by world-class scientists.

This project came after a warning the company, then Esso, had received in 1978 from one of its own employees, James Black.2 He explained to executives that burning fossil fuels was increasing CO2 levels, which would accumulate in the upper atmosphere and warm the planet. “Some countries would benefit but others would have their agricultural output reduced or destroyed,” Black wrote in his presentation notes. There was a “five- to ten-year time window to establish what must be done.”

The researchers working on the supertanker project made projections about CO2 levels and global temperatures that would prove startlingly accurate today. The research was published and formed the basis of a 1982 technical briefing3 prepared by Exxon’s environmental affairs office and marked “not to be distributed externally.” The document stated that some uncertainties needed further research, but it pointed clearly to “potentially catastrophic events that must be considered.” These included the melting of the Antarctic ice sheet and agricultural disruption. Page five held an ominous warning: “There is concern among some scientific groups that once the effects are measurable, they might not be reversible.”

By the time I was in my midteens, things had moved on for the energy companies. Exxon had ended the supertanker CO2 research project. Inside the company, a communications strategy was taking shape. On an internal draft memo in 1988,4 a public affairs manager wrote that what was then called the greenhouse effect “may be one of the most significant environmental issues for the 1990s.” The spokesperson laid out “the Exxon position,” which included to “emphasize the uncertainty” in any science on predicted climate effects. Exxon began to buy space in leading papers, such as the New York Times, for regular pieces that mimicked the look of a Times op-ed. These advertorials, as they became known, reached a readership of millions.5 “Unsettled Science,” read the title of one in 2000.6 It wasn’t only Exxon. A 1998 American Petroleum Institute memo,7 developed by a group including Exxon, Chevron, and Southern Company, had laid out a draft Global Climate Science Communications Plan. The document described an effort to start a national media relations program “to inform the media about uncertainties in climate science.” It said “victory would be achieved” when uncertainties became “conventional wisdom,” and when those promoting the Kyoto treaty on the basis of existing science appeared to be “out of touch with reality.” The journalists at Inside Climate News who worked on the Exxon story two decades later were nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. The oil giant said it was part of an orchestrated campaign to stigmatize and misrepresent the company on climate.8

“I cannot see into Exxon management’s heart,” said physicist Martin Hoffert, who had worked on climate models for Exxon. He was testifying to a US congressional committee in 2019, during a hearing examining oil industry efforts to suppress the truth on climate.9 “Exxon was publicly promoting views that its own scientists knew were wrong. What they did was immoral.”

In Jersey, I grew and swam. After dog paddle, I learned breaststroke, and to count myself down to a leap off the cobbled slipways. Held safe by the sea, I dreamed of whales.

Marie pulls her car up outside Union Station. “I feel nervous for you, doing this all by yourself.”

Max and I are leaving LA, catching a train to San Diego. I look at him sleeping in his car seat. “Do you think I shouldn’t be going?”

A pause, a clearing of the throat. “I think you’ve got to get it out of your system.”

“But do you think it’s okay to take him?”

“Well, you’ve spent so much money.”

“But do you think it’s too risky?”

A longer pause. “No.”

Having squeezed out the response I need to hear, fairly or not, I hug her goodbye.

“Dis is train at Wenyee Park,” says Max as he wakes to a departures announcement. “Bee-bee-beep.”

I’m struggling with the buggy, car seat, rucksacks, bags.

The train attendant glares. “That buggy needs to be folded up, upstairs.” She turns away before I can ask for help.

The train ride is a beauty. We shoot out of the station in our capsule, in glorious limbo, past the Wun Fun meat company buildings and a viaduct.

“Will be full of gin in twenty-five minutes,” I mishear over the PA. My ears are clearly taking awhile to adjust to the American accent. Max and I stare out the window, transfixed. Muddy-brown snake of river and yellow conveyor-belt-plant flash past. Glittering heaps and in the distance mountains. I can feel the landscape filling my head. Toilet brush trees. Pale yellow earth. Pennzoil tank. Land site for sale. I count forty-two truck containers. Power lines crisscross the sky. This is how my heart is furnished, like the view from a train. I like to be totally occupied in the immediate. And am always, always, longing for something in the distance.

Max is sitting quietly next to me and then he is not. He is retching. I launch myself toward him just in time to catch a stream of brown vomit on my front. Chocolate milk shake while we waited for the train had seemed a great idea at the time. Passengers nearby look around, then quickly turn away. A towel, some tissues, I have nothing. I can’t open my bag because my hands are covered in brown. When the retching stops, I shuffle backward into the aisle, carrying Max and cradling the brown lake between us on my T-shirt. I walk down the train toward the toilets. The carriage is full.

“Sorry, sorry,” I say to each person as we pass.

A tall woman in a white blouse leaps up, her eyes wide. “Oh my.”

I apologize frantically.

“What can I do?” she asks. She’s joined by another woman offering help. They excavate items from my rucksack and pass them to me in the lavatory. Baby wipes, shampoo, diaper, clean clothes. Finally, they magic up a plastic bag to stuff the dirty clothes in, although our T-shirts aren’t worth saving and go in the bin. I want to hug them but worry I might still smell of vomit, so I thank them instead.

“Been there,” says the tall woman knowingly. The other smiles and wishes me luck.

“Nee-nee, Mummy,” Max interrupts. It’s our code word for “boobs.” He breastfeeds sporadically for the remaining journey. I keep a towel and baby wipes close to hand.

It’s getting dark when we arrive in San Diego.

“I need to go on a tram,” Max shouts as the trams stream around us.

“Maxim,” I say firmly, “we’re getting a bus.”

“Not a bus, I need to go on a tram,” he screams. A man gives him a quarter and tells him I will buy him something later, but Max shrieks, at earsplitting volume, all the way through the bus journey and into check-in at the hotel. That night he sleeps peacefully but I can’t. I take his temperature and check for rashes every few hours. What am I doing? Was it really that bad in the hostel? At least it was safe there.

I carefully remind myself that I tried hard to carve out a space for us in Jersey. I looked for jobs and even got an interview at the Environment Department, dredging up parts of my science CV for the application form. After university I’d worked on storm prediction, building a statistical model that predicted rainfall intensity, and for a year I’d assisted with an experiment about elevated levels of CO2 and plant growth. For the job interview I crammed on insect-population sampling methods and was asked to prepare a talk on the Jersey grasshopper, Euchorthippus pulvinatus elegantulus. It looks like a pointy-headed mint humbug and is a species found nowhere else on earth. When Jersey was cut off from Europe, when sea levels rose and the land bridge was submerged about eight thousand years ago, this little creature was cut adrift from other grasshopper populations. It defined itself with unique evolutionary steps and likes resting vertically on grass stalks, in the sand dunes that huddle and sprawl opposite the bay that sweeps up the entire west coast of the island. As a child I’d liked throwing myself down the dunes and lying, sheltered from the wind, watching the insects crawl. I was sure I’d met the grasshopper before. It was an iconic animal, I told the interview panel, Jersey’s equivalent of charismatic megafauna. It showcased the unique biodiversity of the island, and its quirky story of survival and adaptation could help people engage with environmental protection. I didn’t get the job. It went to someone who’d discovered his own species of louse, a sympathetic insider told me later. As I watched Max sleep, I thought of the grasshopper, navigating its own path, with no other grasshopper relatives around to make it feel different, or to complain that it was doing something wrong.

At half past four in the morning I wheel Max out in the buggy, dropping things everywhere. He’s still out for the count. A warm wind blows around a group of mainly elderly people standing by a minibus. I thought there would be other kids, other ages, families. Everyone’s quiet, shocked to be up so early.

“I’m Ralph,” a man who looks like a handsome Droopy the Dog introduces himself. He’s tying things onto the roof and grumbles when he sees all my stuff. I fit the car seat into an empty row in the bus. Max wakes as I lift him in and stares sleepily out the window. No one speaks. We’ve got hours of driving ahead.

At the Mexican border the officials peer in and wave us on. The checkpoint guards are attractive, two women and one man, with tight trousers and guns. I fancy all of them. It feels so good to be out in the world again, brings back memories of traveling for work. I’m reminded that I once had a paid job, was self-supporting, judged useful by society. It’s hot and dawn hasn’t yet broken. We pass through Tijuana, where colorful roadside businesses are just starting to wake up.

“We’re getting closer to the whales,” I tell Max.

“Look, Flash, whales.” He holds his toy dog up to the window.

“Not yet, we’ll be there soon.”

He gives me a dubious look and goes back to sleep.

We’ll join the whales where the ocean is geographically blessed by the tropical and subtropical desert climate. The lagoons are their safe place, their birthing grounds. I’ve read that whale-watching pangas are not allowed to get close, but occasionally whales approach the boats and might even allow themselves to be touched.

I imagine a gray whale mother giving birth, raising her tail vertically from the water and lowering it again, repeating the movement while a comparatively tiny head emerges close to her flukes, from a beautiful long slit. Surrounded by seawater and amniotic fluid, the unborn calf will have been hearing everything, will know his mother’s voice. He appears, inch by inch, then it’s all in a rush, all five meters of newborn in the water, fins unfurling. The umbilical cord breaks and then they are two, the baby still depending on the mother for her milk, to regulate his heart rate and blood pressure, to provide immunity and safety, to teach him how to live. She supports him with her body; he scatters the surface, breaks the light with his first breath.

I remember breathing and blowing, calling out into the water as my body produced my son. Whales and humans are both mammals. I wonder if we experience birth similarly. Our babies both seek out the nipple, make sounds that communicate that they are upset or scared. We share the same survival instinct, feelings that tell us to go toward things or get away. I haven’t managed to provide much in the way of close family for Max, but I want to show him his place in this more-than-human family. I want to tell the whales thank you, just for being here.

The windows start showing us desert and scrub. I love scrub. It looks angry. As if it’s just got up. Fuck you, it says, you try surviving here. See how you’ll look. Yeah, I think. We drive through more checkpoints. Ralph says we’ll be searched and it might take some time. He says something about ballenas to the guards. They look at Max and me, at the buggy on top of the van, and wave us straight through. I gloat inwardly that we and our troublesome luggage have made things easier for the group. On the narrow mountain roads, trucks come by fast and close. Cacti give us the finger as we pass. We arrive in Guerrero Negro as the clouds curdle with orange.

I carry Max to our room, his face and arms licked amber by the sunset. I know whales see in monochrome. But do they play in the changing light as night falls? They wrap their lives around their young in these lagoons, and by seeking them out I’m finding the space to do that too. The rest of the world can wait awhile. I wonder if the baby whales are sleeping. Are the mothers watching the sky? Do they feel the wonder too?

About The Author

Photograph by Joanna Szymkiewicz

Doreen Cunningham is an Irish British writer born in Wales. After studying engineering Doreen worked briefly in climate-related research at the Natural Environment Research Council and in storm modeling at Newcastle University before turning to journalism. She worked for the BBC World Service variously as an international news presenter, reporter, and editor for twenty years. She won the RSL Giles St Aubyn Award 2020 and was shortlisted for the Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writers Award 2021 for Soundings, her first book.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (July 12, 2022)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982171797

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Raves and Reviews

A New Statesman Best Book of 2022 (so far)
One of The Guardian's Best Nature Memoirs
One of Smithsonian Magazine's Ten Best Books About Travel of 2022

"Captures rarely observed natural places… The reader understands that reporting on climate disaster, and Cunningham’s own troubles, have sent the journalist into uncomfortable turbulence. She finds an easier groove, and readers are richer for it, in the enduring beauty and resilient wonder of the ocean."
San Francisco Chronicle

"A striking, brave and often lyrical book that defies easy interpretation ... Cunningham adroitly sidesteps much of the male-dominated narratives about whales and whaling, and clearly takes inspiration more from Inuit mythology than from Herman Melville. She and her son make for an unconventionally heroic pair ... Whale mothers and their calves, meanwhile, surface and dive alongside the pair, and Cunningham movingly describes their bonds of cooperation, which find pointed echoes and contrasts in her travelling companions and personal relationships. Her sensuous descriptions of grey whales and humpbacks provide some of the book’s richest passages; she looks at the whales and then looks at her son, looking at whales, which look back."
The Guardian

"Cunningham is consistently forthcoming and self-aware, and she delivers an informed perspective on climate change and ecological damage ... A gorgeous, heartfelt coda brings the narrative to a close, and we can’t deny our own sympathies. An absorbing account that offers urgent warnings for humankind."

"This book is a gorgeous journey. Cunningham guides us elegantly from Mexico to Alaska, riding along with wild gray whales. And she excels as well at bringing the reader along on her personal journey of motherhood, struggle, and epiphany. You will be glad you’ve joined her."
—Susan Orlean, author of On Animals and The Library Book

“A raw and rapturous work of nature writing. Or is it memoir? Adventure journalism? Pop science? Climate cri de coeur? This foul-mouthed, gimlet-eyed, big-hearted chimera of a book is all of those—and more.”
—Robert Moor, bestselling author of On Trails: An Exploration

“Fascinating . . . an intimate journey through a world already altered by climate change.”
—Sjón, author of The Whispering Muse

“Through her journey from Mexico to Alaska, Doreen Cunningham develops what can only be described as a spiritual relationship with the gray whales. Readers will be further enriched by her ability to seamlessly integrate traditional Indigenous knowledge and science of the sea, ice, and the world of the Iñupiat who hunt the mammoth baleen whales.”
Rosita Kaaháni Worl, Ph.D., President of the Sealaska Heritage Institute

"Soundings is a story of whales and people, of kinship and questing, and perhaps most of all of the connections among our human selves and across species. With a lyrical voice and tremendous emotional honesty, Doreen Cunningham defies genre and skips easy romance to bring us a cetacean journey—and a journey into the tough, transformative stuff of making community in this beautiful, harsh and changeable world."
—Bathsheba Demuth, author of Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait

“Soulful, honest, insightful, humane, and best of all, propulsive … I was deeply moved and fell in love with Doreen’s story.”
—Jini Reddy, author of Wanderland

"A spellbinding journey of discovery told with deep sensitivity and honesty."
—Dr. Edith Widder, CEO & Senior Scientist of the Ocean Research & Conservation Association

"Doreen's is a thrilling, passionate and tenderhearted adventure. I read this book in one sitting, and couldn’t sleep that night – my mind was still filled with her extraordinary endurance, her wild spirit."
—Helen Jukes, author of A Honeybee’s Heart has Five Openings

"Defiant, despairing, hopeful, restless and compelled – Doreen Cunningham grabs our hands and takes us with her on a wild journey through danger, motherhood, upheaval and love. Soundings is resonant with the voices of endangered whales and the essential truth that our failures and imperfections are tangled with our unique strengths and beauty. This is a book that grips and doesn't let go."
—Rebecca Schiller, author of A Thousand Ways to Pay Attention

"Beautiful and brave, and startling in its raw emotional honesty."
—Neil Ansell, author of Deep Country and The Circling Sky

"I see in Doreen Cunningham a kindred spirit. Her experience in arctic Alaska is one I recognize, with individuals I know and love. Written with a sure hand and an unfailing eye for the right detail, Cunningham's prose sings. This is a journey well worth taking."
—Debby Dahl Edwardson, author of Blessing's Bead and My Name is Not Easy

"This stunning book blends nature writing of the most urgent kind with precise and poetic observation of human tribulation and the interconnectedness of all things. Fresh, brave and unique."
—Damian Le Bas, author of The Stopping Places

"What a voice! What a book! Pounding with the power of thrashing flukes, shivering with Arctic ice, yet suffused with rare human warmth. A book worthy of its mighty subjects."
—Charles Foster, author of Being a Human

"Soundings stuns with its bravery and lyricism. This is a book to be devoured."
—Ramita Navai, author of City of Lies

"Cunningham's scientific knowledge and gorgeous prose take us on an extraordinary journey as she forges a remarkable connection with these astonishing creatures and issues an impassioned plea for our shared futures. Soundings is a completely unique, unforgettable book."
—Erica Wagner, author of Seizure and Chief Engineer

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