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'Soundings' is a memoir, meditation and adventure in following grey whales' migration

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Doreen Cunningham has written a book that is a memoir, a meditation and an adventure, both for whales who migrate from Baja California to the Arctic and those other mammals we call human beings. "Soundings" tells the story - and it's her story - of a single mother who takes Max, her 2-year-old son, on a trek to follow that migration of gray whales and the paths by which we all try to navigate what can be a forbidding world. Doreen Cunningham joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

DOREEN CUNNINGHAM: Thank you for having me.

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

CUNNINGHAM: Whales are a species that I've always drawn on for strength. They were very present in my childhood. I was born around the time that 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 parent, I had gone through a difficult couple of years. Learning about the gray whale migration really inspired me because of their endurance, how they keep going through difficulty, and that helped me when I was finding life hard.

SIMON: Yeah. Can I draw you out to tell us about that because it was a confluence of circumstances that really were a rough place to be in life?

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

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

CUNNINGHAM: Well, I was trying to make life work where we were in the shelter. And whales, as I said, have kind of been an inspiration to me throughout life. They're my go-to daydream if I want to just take myself away from reality. And that's what I was doing one night. You know, I'd been in the shelter for about a year. I was absolutely worn down. So I was reading about whales online instead of doing my editing work one night when I just happened to come across an article about gray whales, which I actually didn't really know very much about. They're a little bit uglier. They don't jump around and do tricks for tourists. But then to learn that they do this epic migration from the lagoons of Baja Mexico and then up to the Arctic feeding grounds every year - that was just stunning to me. So I decided to escape.

SIMON: And I think a lot of people will wonder, why bring a young son into this?

CUNNINGHAM: Well, I wanted to share with him some of what had been most wonderful about my life. And being confined in the four walls of the shelter where we were living and confined by my financial circumstances and confined by the way society treats single parents - you know, very little support, not valued, not paid - I felt an enormous amount of grief about what I wasn't able to give him. I hadn't been able to give him the nuclear family that we're all sort of made to aspire to. And I wasn't even able to make simple choices in our lives about what we would wear and what we would eat. I just had to take whatever was on offer. And I was truly grateful for the support I received, 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 astounding that they trusted us. They came right up to the boats. And these are lagoons where in the 1850s and '60s, the gray whales were slaughtered almost to 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 that evolved this incredible phenomenon where they come up. They play. They will bump the boats. And what was happening when we were there was the female was a little way off the boat, you know, this 12-meter-long animal sort of snoozing. And the baby whale was coming around the boat and bumping it. And one of the people on the boat said, oh, we're free day care. And I think that's probably about it. She was taking a break, but the playfulness and the trust - it was like a gift.

SIMON: And of course, climate change comes into this.

CUNNINGHAM: The gray whales that we were following - because they travel so far, they're seen as an indicator species for the changes that are happening in the ocean. And they're also remarkable animals because they are so flexible and they've coped with climate change in the past. So their behavior is really interesting and for me very hopeful in a way. What's happening now is there's a group of whales called the Sounders who have found a new source of food in the waters of Puget Sound off Washington state. One of the founders is a whale that's been nicknamed Earhart by researchers. She was first seen coming to the area in 1990, when there was a big die-off going on. And at the moment there's another die-off going on. So large numbers of gray whales are washing up dead, and a lot of them are emaciated. And at the same time, the numbers of whales joining the Sounders and Earhart, who's been seen leading these whales to this food source of ghost shrimp near the shore, is increasing. So the whales are interrupting their migration, feeding on the shrimp and leaving fattened up. And that's astounding behavior for me to see, who is, you know, very worried about what the future brings for me and for my children - will bring in terms of climate change.

SIMON: But does your son remember what you did together? What does he what does he take from it, do you think?

CUNNINGHAM: The bit that he remembers most clearly is when we were on a boat once, he was turning the wheel. That was tremendously exciting for him at the time. It was a fake ship's wheel, but he remembers being there and thinking that he was driving the boat. And I like that 'cause 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 it for the book. He said something really perfect, which was just that he likes to think of the whales swimming along, and sometimes he likes to think of him swimming along with them. And, you know, that's what I set out to achieve - 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" - thanks so much for being with us.

CUNNINGHAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.