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Gray Whales are baleen whales. They filter tiny organisms from the sea through comb-like plates in their mouths called baleen. Gray whales suck mud from the bottom of the ocean in areas of nutrient-rich cold water and filter out small crustaceans called amphipods. Baleen is what we call the huge, fuzzy combs in their mouths which are their strainers. It takes a lot of 2" amphipods to fatten up a 45 foot, 30-35 ton whale. Where do they find them all? Summers in the northern latitudes bring very long daylight hours which cause natural production of phytoplankton to increase. These tiny plants fuel an entire food chain. Amphipods are a link in that chain so they become very abundant in the northern seas from mid-spring to mid-fall. The majority of the gray whales spend their summers in the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia, but some spread out all along the Pacific coast and can be seen occasionally from coastal headlands during the spring and summer months. About 200-400 gray whales spend their summer off of the coast of Oregon, never going all the way to the Bering.
In December and January, gray whales migrate
from their Bering Sea feeding grounds to calving lagoons in Baja, Mexico where pregnant
females give birth and mating takes place. The southward migration
takes them about three weeks, traveling at around five mile per hour.
Some non-breeding whales may not make the entire trip. The males leave the lagoons for their
return migration pretty shortly after mating and appear off our coast in March and early
April. The females with calves wait until their calves gain some strength before
leaving for the long trip north. They are most often seen off our coast
from late April through June.
The winter migration is short and quick.
The whales rather single-mindedly drive southwards in straight lines a few miles
offshore. You can see their spouts, but they are distant. The spring migration
is the best to watch, partly because the weather is better, but mostly because the
come closer in towards the shore so their calves can avoid being eaten by killer whales and
great white sharks. Sometimes you can almost look directly down on them from the
headlands. Ecola viewpoint and the large viewpoint at Neahkahnie Mountain are two
very good whale-watching locations in our area.
Whale watching in some parts of the world means
spending a lot of money going out in a boat. You can certainly do that in Oregon and
you might get closer to them, but because of our rugged coastline you don't need to spend
all of that money just to see whales. The most essential thing to bring is warm
clothes. Even if it seems warm, I assure you that standing out on
a rocky headland protruding into the ocean is a chilly experience. Bring more
clothing than you think you will need.
Whale Watching Weeks
One week in the winter and one week in the spring
are designated Whale Watch Weeks. The winter week is usually between Christmas and
New Years Day. That's not necessarily the peak of their migration, but is when the
most people are able to take time off and go looking for them. The spring week is
usually in March and is timed to coincide with Spring Break in Oregon schools.
Whale Watching Boat Trips
If you've got the money to spend and want to get up close and personal with the whales, you can go out in a boat to see them. Boats are not supposed to approach the whales, it is harassment, but a good captain will be able to position the boat so that the whale might become curious and come and investigate. Whale watching trips sail out of Garibaldi and Depot Bay, Oregon that I know of. The closest one to Cannon Beach is probably D&D Charters out of Garibaldi (1-800-900-4665.) Probably other ports as well; ask around if you are farther south. If you reserve a trip ahead of time, make sure you can cancel or reschedule in case of foul weather. The whales are out there in the bad weather, but they are hard to spot because their spouts blend in with all of the whitecaps on the water. As with watching from land, be sure and bring plenty of warm clothes. You are not likely to get too hot out there.
After being hunted nearly to
extinction, the Pacific Gray Whale was listed as an endangered species long
before there was an Endangered Species Act. Their recovery was judged
complete and they were delisted in 1994 with an estimated population of
around 24,000 individuals. They remain protected under the Marine
Mammal Protection Act, but small numbers of them are killed each year by
native tribesmen on both sides of the North Pacific.
Although the Gray Whales are the easiest to spot, many other cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) visit our shores as well. Keep your eyes out for Orcas, Pilot Whales, Right Whales, Minke Whales, Humpback Whales, Pacific White-sided Dolphins, Dall's Porpoise, or Harbor Porpoise. None of these are as common as the Gray Whale, but they have been seen in the area. Here is a good source of information on all Cetaceans: Cetacea.org.