By Mathew Brock

Each year, more than 20,000 gray whales leave their feeding grounds off the coast of Alaska to migrate to the warm lagoons of Baja California, Mexico, to mate and give birth to calves. This is a yearly migration spanning up to 10,000 miles roundtrip that begins in October and ends when the whales return home by the end of June.

These whales travel down the coastline from the Bering Strait to the Baja Peninsula, passing by the Oregon coast in large groups right around the holiday season.

This year the designated whale watch week for Oregon is Dec. 27-31. Since gray whales often travel relatively near the shore, they are one of the easiest species of whale to observe during their yearly migration.

Members of Whale Watching Spoken Here, a volunteer-run, whale-watching program founded in 1978, will be stationed at three locations in Curry County during the whale watching week: Harris Beach, Cape Ferrelo and Battle Rock Wayside. These volunteers can answer questions about the migration and assist visitors in observing the passing whales.

It is also possible to hire local charter and river guide services to observe the migration on the water. While Tidewind Sportfishing often conducts sightseeing tours during the migration, their service will be unavailable due to Coast Guard regulations requiring renovations to their vessel. Smaller charter services, such as Wild Rivers Fishing, also provide sightseeing tours alongside their regular river and bottom fishing guide services during migration season.

Tips for watching

Elevation is key to watching whales from shore. The higher you are the farther you can see, and a downward angle can help spot whales in the water. As the whales will travel up to 2.5 miles offshore, binoculars might also be handy to get a good view.

Having the sun to one’s back is also recommended to minimize the glare from the ocean. This means early morning is the best time to be on the lookout as the rising sun will be between you and the water, while afternoon is often the worst time, as the setting sun hangs right above the water and causes extreme glare.

Places to watch

There are several coastal recreation sites in Curry County suited to watching the yearly whale migration. On rare occasions, migrating whales can even be seen from the Brookings harbor.

Chetco Point

Located in Brookings just behind the water treatment plant, this small peninsula provides an expansive view of the ocean near the mouth of the Chetco river. Benches, picnic tables and a restroom are available for use by visitors. Parking is limited, but Cheto Point’s convenient location within the city means it can be reached easily by foot from nearby neighborhoods.

Harris Beach

Just north of Brookings, Harris Beach State Park is one of Whale Watching Spoken Here’s recommended viewing sites for the yearly migration. The park boasts a campground, rest area and several hiking trails. The top of the South Beach Trail and the cliffside Sunset Trail leading down the hill provide a spacious and elevated coastal vista. Ample parking is provided near the rest area, while limited vista parking is also available.

Cape Ferrelo

Not much farther than Harris Beach, Cape Ferrelo Viewpoint is another of whale-watching Spoken Here’s designated Whale Watching sites. Cape Ferrelo is part of the Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, which features extensive hiking trails alongside steep coastal cliffs and an open hillside with a clear view of the ocean. Parking at the Cape Ferrelo Viewpoint is limited, but more parking is available at the Lone Ranch Picnic Area nearby.

McVay Rock

Off the beaten path, McVay Rock State Recreational site boasts a dog-friendly park and a large elevated field beside the beach. It is nestled in the private residential area south of Brookings on Oceanview Drive.

More information about gray whales and local viewing areas can be found at learner.org, whalespoken.wordpress.com and oregonstateparks.org.

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