Migration along South Coast

Written by Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer December 21, 2012 10:06 pm
A gray whale breaks the surface of the ocean during its annual southern migration to warmer waters.
A gray whale breaks the surface of the ocean during its annual southern migration to warmer waters.

The best time of year to watch whales migrate is Dec. 24 to 30 — and the best place to see the vast majority of them is in Curry County.

According to Oregon Parks and Recreation statistics, 590 whales were spotted along the Oregon coast during the week-long period last year – and 296 of them were seen in the ocean off Cape Ferrelo and Harris Beach.

“You’re looking for an animal that’s as big as a school bus,” Harris Beach State Park Interpretive Ranger Angela Stewart said last year.  “And when you finally see one, it’s exciting. It’s just something magical. I can’t put it any other way. It still excites me after 26 years.”

The Whale Watching Center in Depoe Bay — home of the Whale Watching Spoken Here program — trains volunteers each season to help visitors spot whales and to answer questions about them.

So grab your binoculars, layer up, dedicate an hour or so and head to the beach.

About 18,000 whales are headed to warmer weather to give birth to calves this time of year. Gray whales are the main attraction, but others animals, including porpoises, dolphins, orca whales and Aleutian geese can also be seen.

Twenty-four locations, from Ilwaco, Wash., to Crescent City, teem with people during the week, each hoping to catch a glimpse of the magnificent animals.

Locally, whales can be seen — and volunteers will be on hand to answer questions — at Battle Point Wayfinding Point in Port Orford, Cape Ferrelo and Harris Beach in the Brookings area and on Brother Jonathan Point in Crescent City.

Volunteers will be available to point out whales between 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. each day during the week.

The whales have spent the summer feeding on an average of 65 tons each of plankton blooms whose population explodes during two months of 24-hour-long days of sunshine in the Arctic. The gray whale capitalizes on this enormous bloom in there to ensure it has enough energy stored in its blubber to make the 10,000- to 12,000-mile migration — believed to be the longest annual trek taken by any mammal.

The 35- to 40-foot-long behemoths weigh between 20 and 40 tons.

The gray whale is a dark slate-gray in color and covered by gray-white scars left by parasites that drop off in its cold-feeding grounds. Another identifying feature is the whale’s baleen, fibrous structure in their mouths that enable the whale to filter food from the water.

The gray whale also lacks a dorsal fin.

But their “blow” is what they are best known for, as they slowly travel about 75 miles a day, at a speed of about 5 miles an hour to the warmer climes of Baja California. The blow spouts can shoot up to 12 feet in the air and expel 400 liters of air, making them easier to spot.

An estimated 400 of them don’t go as far north as Alaska in the spring, instead opting to stay on the coasts of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. They are generally one to three miles offshore and can be spotted by their water spouts, backs and fins as they swim through the water.

For those who can’t catch their southern migration this month, whales can again be seen swimming north in February and March as they head back to their feeding grounds. Spring Whale Watch Week is in March, when the whales and their calves are closer to shore.

Whale Watching tips

•Gray whales usually surface every 45 seconds as they swim, but will often stay under for 3 to 5 minutes when they are eating. If they have been down for 5 minutes they usually blow five times when they surface to replenish their oxygen supply. If they are frightened they can stay down for 30 minutes, hiding on the bottom or traveling great distances.

•The ultimate in whale sightings is a breach — when a whale launches as much as three-quarters of its body out of the water in a spectacular show of power and grace. Scientists aren’t sure why whales breach.

•A deep dive, also known as sounding or fluking, happens when a whale lifts its tail flukes out of the water. This helps propel the whale downward at a steep angle to the bottom, where they feed. After the flukes disappear under the water, the turbulence of the dive will cause a circle of smooth water, known as a fluke-print.

•Gray whales can often seen “spyhopping,” or lifting their heads above the surface of the water to get a better sense of their surroundings.

•Morning light (with the sun at your back) is often helpful for spotting blows. Afternoon light reflects off the water and makes viewing difficult.

•Calmer days are better whale watching days as the waves aren’t as turbulent.

•Higher locations often yield more sightings than beaches.

Volunteer

Those interested in volunteering during the next gray whale migration in the spring can attend training sessions Jan. 12 in Port Orford or Feb. 9 in Nehalem. Training is free; volunteers are asked to help at one of the watch sites for at least two days during a “Watch Week.” Visit www.whalespoken.org for more information.