Thousands of gray whales are making their annual migration south along the Oregon and California coasts, promising to attract plenty of visitors.
An estimated 25,000 gray whales are expected to swim past the shores, part of their annual migration south to the warm calving lagoons near Baja, Mexico.
The end of December is the peak time for their migration, with roughly 30 whales passing by per hour.
The near-shore migration of the whales has spawned a popular whale-watching industry along the Oregon coast that in 2009 was worth an estimated $29 million – a figure likely higher today, according to researchers.
The Oregon Parks and Recreation Department highlights the migration through its annual Winter Whale Watching Week, Dec. 27-31.
Trained volunteers from the Whale Watching Spoken Here program will be stationed from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. each day at more than 20 of the best whale-watching sites along the coast, ready to help visitors spot whales and to answer questions about the animals. (View the site map at currypilot.com.)
Oregon Parks and Recreation Ranger Luke Parsons gives some insight into the whales’ migration:
The Pilot: What is it about the whales that attracts people to the Oregon coast?
Luke Parsons: Seeing a whale is usually a pretty unforgettable experience. Most people remember exactly where they were the first time they spotted a whale. I’m not sure exactly why we have such a fascination with them, but many people are just awestruck by their immense size. And once you start to learn about their behaviors and intelligence, you just really start to appreciate how amazing these animals really are.
In other parts of the world, to go whale watching, many times you have to venture out in a boat for many miles. Here along the Oregon coast, you can go to almost any of our beautiful state parks, have a picnic with your family and look for whales at the same time, something that is pretty special.
The Pilot: How is the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department using the annual migrations to help educate the public about the whales and the coastal environment?
Parsons: We work with many of the state’s finest researchers to train our volunteers about gray whales, and other Oregon coastal animals, each year. Our volunteers are some of the most passionate people I have ever met. They care deeply about whales, our coastline and how to protect them both.
The other thing we stress, of course, is beach safety. Winter storms can produce hazardous conditions all along the shore. We make sure to pass along some good safety messages, because many folks who visit the ocean this time of year may not be from the area.
The Pilot: Give us a summary of the most interesting and important facts about the gray whales’ winter migration.
Parsons: The gray whales we see traveling south right now are swimming about 100 miles per day. They don’t stop to sleep at all for around 60 days during this part of the migration. Another fun fact is that these whales will not eat for several months now. They are all relying on the blubber, or fat, that they have accumulated during the summer feeding season. Sometimes, a gray whale may go four to five months or more without eating.
The Pilot: Where are the migration spots along the southern Oregon coast, and what areas would be the best and safest vantage points to see the whales?
Parsons: The winter whale watch is all about finding a site with good elevation. Sites like the one at Harris Beach State Park and Cape Ferrelo were specifically chosen some years ago because of their excellent views.
See more photos and read more about the whale migrations at currypilot.com.