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Pacific Gray Whales
(Eschrichtius robustus)

  Whale Watch Week schedule.

Winter 2007/8:  12-26-07 through 1-1-08
Spring 2008:      3-22-08 through 3-29-08

   Whales may be viewed from many, easily accessible headlands on the Oregon coast.  
   Read on down this page for whale watching hints.

Check the whale watching website for more information on Whale Watch Week.

     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.

Migration

     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.
     Gray whales do not feed much, if at all, during their migration - especially on the southward migration during which they keep a steady pace.  Instead, they burn the fat which they spent the summer building up by munching all of those amphipods.

Whale Watching

     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 gray whales 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 is best done when the wind is fairly calm and it is helpful to bring binoculars.  Yes, even on our windy coast there really are calms, usually at least once during some part of every day.  The techniques for spotting and watching whales are simple.  First, ask others who are standing around with binoculars "seen any whales?"  Don't worry about being embarrassed, if they have seen a whale they will be thrilled to be able to show you and if they haven't they are in the same boat as you.   If you must find them for yourself, no problem.  Just gaze out onto the ocean with your eyes, focusing on medium distances until you see a puff of white.  Then raise your binoculars while continuing to look at the place you saw the puff.  This may take some practice.  Most people tend to look into the binoculars then start swinging them around looking for something.  It works better to keep your eyes focused on the whale (or bird or whatever) and raise the binoculars to your eyes, looking right through them, not into them.
     The whales spend most of their time under the water.   Typically they will breath every ten to twenty seconds about five or six times, then sound (dive) for 3-5 minutes before coming up to start the breathing cycle again.  When they are breathing, they are easy to keep track of because they don't move far between breaths.  They tend to swim a bit faster when they sound, so you will have to look a bit ahead of where you last saw them to see them surface again.  Sometimes, during the spring migration you will see them playing.  The calves and younger whales can be quite playful.  Other behaviors to watch for are spy hopping, breaching, and various forms of splashing with their flukes.
     Spy hopping is when whales raise their head vertically out of the water for a peek around from a higher position.  Presumably they do this for navigation, and perhaps for other reasons as well.  It is pretty common to see spy hopping off of Neahkahnie Mountain which would be a useful navigational marker if one were a whale.
     Breaching is when whales propel themselves full-length out of the water and then splash down.  Do they do this to dislodge barnacles and parasites, just for play, or both?  I don't know, but it is a grand sight to see and well worth spending some time watching.
     Tail flukes are often seen raised high in the air when the whales sound.  It probably gives them some downward momentum.  Sometimes you will see tail flukes or fins splashed on the water.  I've seen whales just loll around on their side and splash, splash, splash.  It looks like fun!

Equipment

     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.
     Binoculars are very nice to have because through them you can see the whale and not just the spout.  Extremely high power is not nearly as important as a wide angle of view.  It's a big ocean out there and you are looking for a brief puff.  Give yourself a little help and use a wide angle binocular if you can.
     Finally, a lawn chair will help guarantee success by encouraging you to sit still and be patient.  It can take a while to see a whale - especially your first one.  Once you start seeing them, you will see more and more.   Well over 20,000 gray whales will migrate past Oregon.  They travel at about 5MPH, so that means there should be some in sight almost all the time.  The trick is to spot them, then they are easy to follow.

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.
     During a Whale Watch Week, volunteers are posted at good whale watching viewpoints up and down the coast to educate people and help you sight a whale.   They also count whales.  When the volunteers are available you will see a sign posted nearby and the volunteer will usually have a sweatshirt, windbreaker, or ball cap saying "Whale watching spoken here" on it.  They are a wealth of information, so by all means, ask them questions and learn from them.  And remember that they are volunteers, so treat them with courtesy and respect.   They are giving their time to share something special with you.
     For information on dates and locations for Whale Watch Week or to volunteer your time, visit the Whale Watching Spoken Here website.

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.

Species Status

     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.
     Unfortunately, whales continue to endure the threat of extinction at the hand of man, though deep water whales are at much greater risk this time:  The latest threat is from the US Navy.  It seems that they have a new sonar system which is so powerful that it can cause hemorrhaging of the whales' inner ears, leading to certain death.  The Natural Resources Defense Council is leading the fight to stop them.  You can read about it here.  The Christian Science Monitor also had an article about the LFAS system.  And I've listed more information sources below for you to study.  Then it's time to start writing letters again...

Other Cetaceans

     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.


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