DEPOE BAY – Winter Whale Watch Week
“We get people from all over the world that come here to see the gray whales,” said Linda Taylor, Oregon State Parks Department interpretive park ranger who is stationed at the Whale Watching Center on U.S. Highway 101 in Depoe Bay. “People get really excited about seeing these whales. About 18,000 gray whales will pass by in roughly four weeks, from mid-December to mid-January
Whale watching takes place almost year-round on the Oregon coast. Spring watching begins in March, when another Whale Watch Week is scheduled March 23-30. The number of whales peaks the last week and finishes in June with mothers and babies being the last whales traveling north. Summer brings whales that feed along the coast from July to mid-November.
With trained volunteers at “Whale Watching Spoken Here” sites visitors receive help spotting gray whales during the winter and spring annual migrations, in addition to receiving information about their migration.
The main body of whales is about five miles offshore, but some can be seen as close as one to two miles off shore. During the southern migration whales seldom stop to eat, but travel steadily to the Baja lagoons of Mexico.
Winter migration has the highest numbers (30 per hour) but the whales are usually farther offshore because of stormy weather. Bring your binoculars and dress for the weather. Focus your binoculars and have them ready, but watch with your eyes. When you locate a blow, peer through your binoculars for a closer look.
“They are huge, but they are not easy to see,” said Taylor. “It takes a little finesse to find them. You are watching for their blow of the spout. They do everything underwater. But when they breach and actually haul clear out of the water and slam back down it’s pretty amazing.”
Gray whales are noted for their 12,000-mile annual migration from the Arctic Ocean to Mexico in the winter and their return north in the spring. Whalers nicknamed the gray whales “Devil Fish” because they fought so hard to defend their babies. Today, they are best known for being friendly to people.
In the 1600s and 1700s, gray whales in the Atlantic were hunted to extinction. They were hunted almost to extinction two different times in the Pacific Ocean. Starting early in the 1900s, the birthing lagoons were protected by the Mexican government. The United Nations joined in the protection in 1935, as did the International Whaling Commission in 1946, but the moratorium against whaling wasn’t started until 1986. The grays made a good recovery and were taken off the endangered list in 1994, but are still threatened. The only natural predators of gray whales are Orcas (killer whales) and large sharks. Even though some countries are still whaling, the biggest threat to the whales is pollution in the oceans.
The whales migrate south to give birth to their young in the warm, calm bays of Mexico. Gray whale babies are 15 feet long and weigh 2,000 pounds at birth and can grow up to 45 feet long and weigh 70,000 pounds.
They return north and spend the summer feeding in the Bering and Chukchi Seas, seldom eat during migration. About 200 gray whales don’t continue to Alaska, but remain along the Oregon coast to feed. The Oregon coast produces lots of phytoplankton (small marine plants), which are eaten by zooplankton (small marine animals), including bottom dwelling amphipods and mysid shrimp, the primary food of the whales.