Whale Watching Along the Oregon Coast

by Wendy on September 28, 2015

Whale watching is a year-round activity on the Oregon Coast with gray whales by far the most commonly seen. Whale watching is not difficult, but a few tips make it easier. Any location with an ocean view may yield whale sightings, and morning light with the sun at your back is best. First locate whale spouts with your naked eye; then focus more closely with binoculars.

For an even closer view, try whale watching from a charter boat. And some people prefer the view from above—from an airplane or helicopter. Both charter boats and air services are available. And of course, calmer days are best whether viewing by land, sea, or air.


Gray Whale Migration

Gray whales migrate south from their feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi seas around Alaska from mid-December through January. They are heading to their breeding grounds in Baja California, Mexico, where warm-water lagoons become nurseries for expectant mothers. Then from late March to June the whales migrate North back to Alaska. On each trip, approximately 18,000 gray whales pass close to the Oregon Coast.

On the trip down, these giant mammals head South on a direct course, move quickly, and mostly stay about 5 miles offshore. At their peak, about 30 whales pass by each hour. Coming back, the whales travel much more leisurely and stay closer to shore—within a half mile is not unusual. The non-breeding males and females lead the way back with some early birds starting in late February. They may even pass stragglers still heading south. The northward migration continues at a slower pace and mothers with young don’t usually appear until May.


Resident Gray Whales in Summer

Some gray whales do not continue on to Alaskan waters but stay off the coast of Oregon between June and November. These part-time residents number about 200. About 60 whales are seen repeatedly off the central coast and have been photographed and identified. Of these, about 40 hang out between Lincoln City and Newport each year because that seems to be what the food supply will support.


Whale Watching Spoken Here

Each year peak migration times coincide with people’s vacation times. The Whale Watching Spoken Here program takes advantage of this coincidence with two weeks of assisted whale watching: one is the week between Christmas and New Year’s and the other is during the last week in March. During each whale-watch week hundreds of volunteers man 26 sites along the coast from Ilwaco, Washington to Crescent City, California.


New Summer Whale Watch Week

Since 2004, a third Whale Watching Spoken Here week has been added, and it’s scheduled during the last week of August through the first Monday in September. The summer whale watch locations are those along the central coast and focus on the part-time resident whales.


How to Become a Whale Watch Volunteer

To be a volunteer in winter, spring, or summer, you don’t have to be a whale expert, but you do have to attend one weekend of training. Volunteers come from all walks of life: from high school students to retirees, from coastal residents to inland city dwellers. The common denominator is an interest in whales—especially gray whales.

As a volunteer you’ll learn a great deal about these fascinating leviathans, meet interesting people, and share what you’ve learned with visitors. It’s exciting to be the one to point and shout, “Over there!” and see the look of wonder that appears when someone sees their very first whale.

For further information or a registration form for the training weekend, contact Dave Newton, Whale Watch Volunteer Coordinator, Oregon Parks and Recreation Dept., 541-765-3407; whale.watching@state.or.us; www.whalespoken.org. Preregistration is required because of limited space.

Whether you sign up for a couple days or a week, it’s your responsibility to arrive early at your whale watching site to help set up, be on duty from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and then help pull siting information together and put everything away. Usually two or more volunteers are at each site, and usually the more experienced one is in charge of putting up the Whale Watching Spoken Here sign and bringing the literature about gray whales and the program. You’ll find that visitors stop no matter what the weather.


Feeding and Diving Facts

You’ll learn that gray whales are baleen whales. This means when feeding for small crustaceans on the ocean floor, the whales roll on their sides and scoop up water and sediments. They then force the water and sediments out through the fringed baleen plates that hang from either side of their upper jaw where teeth would otherwise be.

You’ll learn that gray whales have double spouts just like all baleen whales. That the blow is not a fountain of water, but of mist that condenses immediately as warm moist air is exhaled under high pressure from their lungs. And that gray whales have a rhythmic breathing pattern during migration—three to five short, shallow dives of 15 to 30 seconds each followed by a long, deep dive of three to six minutes. When you see flukes, it usually signals a deep dive.


Spy Hop and Breach Behavior

The two whale behaviors that get people most excited are spy hopping – where the head sticks straight up out of the water – and breaching – where half or more of the body length comes up out of the water before the whale falls on its side or back causing a tremendous splash.

Bruce Mate’s theory on spy hopping goes against the conventional wisdom that says it’s to see what is happening. Mate suggests that it’s to help the whales hear better; he has observed that during spy hop behavior the eyes do not always come above the surface of the water. During migration, it may be to hear the surf since their route follows the coastline.As far as breaching goes, Mate says, “They don’t seem to injure themselves. Once one starts, others follow – like humans yawning.” He goes on to say that no one knows why they do it; theories range from a way to knock off external parasites, such as barnacles, to a form of communication . . . or just for the fun of it.


The original article is posted on the Oregon Coast Visitors Association website at visittheoregoncoast.com/whale-watching

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