Countdown to winter whale watching begins

The tail of a migrating gray whale appears off the Oregon coast near Cape Perpetua last December.

Training for winter whale watching volunteers is set for Dec. 1 in Newport.

Nov. 17, 2018 — Just as this year’s holiday season will be drawing to a close in late December, whale watching on the Oregon coast will just be getting started.

Winter Whale Watching Week will take place Dec. 27 through 31, during one of the best times of the year to spot gray whales off the stormy Oregon coastal shores. Leading up to that time, during the summer and fall, whales feed along the Oregon coast from June to mid-November, during which time between 5 and 15 whales are spotted each day.

But come late December, approximately 18,000 whales will travel 12,000 miles south to Mexico, where they will give birth to their calves.

To help visitors make the most of the annual migration, there will be nearly 40 volunteers at prime viewing points along the Oregon Coast to help visitors spot the mighty mammals.

“Whale Watching Spoken Here” signs will identify the volunteers, who will point out special behaviors, such as spy hopping, breaching and spouting, as well as discuss whale feeding, courtship and migration patterns.

To prepare for the twice-annual event, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD) is seeking whale lovers to participate in its annual Whale Watching Spoken Here program.

The program places trained volunteers at 24 whale-watching sites along the coast during “watch” weeks.

Volunteers who complete the one-day training can select a whale-watching site, where they will be stationed to assist visitors in spotting gray whales and maintain a count of whales spotted.

In addition to the winter whale migration in December, grey whales will make a return trip in the spring, March 24 through 31, 2019.

Volunteers can register for the training online at www. whalespoken., as well as select a watch site.

The training is required for new volunteers, and returning volunteers are encouraged to repeat the course every few years to learn the latest gray whale research results.

The first of three training sessions is set for Saturday, Dec. 1, in Newport, at the Hatfield Marine Science Center.

Training will be delivered by Dr. Bruce Mate, an expert on whales and director of the Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institute.

Additional volunteer training is scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019, in Charleston at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology, and also Saturday, March 2, 2019, at the Clatsop Community College in Astoria.

For whale seekers simply wanting an up-close and personal view, Dockside Charters in Depoe Bay will offer daily whale watching excursions starting in mid-December.

Just south of Lincoln City, Depoe Bay is considered the “Whale Watching Capital of the Oregon Coast” and is also home to the Oregon State Parks Whale Watching Center. 

“We offer 90-minute whale watching excursions for the winter,” says Loren Goddard, one of the owners of Dockside Charters. “Typically our excursions are an hour long, but because the whales are moving fast to Mexico, we have to accommodate for that. We recommend that visitors make reservations early because the winter excursions are very popular.”

Goddard says what makes the trips so popular is that “Visitors are curious about whales on the coast. And the whales are just as curious about us as we are of them,” Goddard explains. “The best part is when they come right up to the boat. Seeing these mammals up-close is a very special experience.”

Gray whales can grow up to 45 feet in length (13.7 meters) — longer than a city bus — and weigh more than 45 tons (41,000 kg).

To learn more about the winter and spring whale-watching seasons, contact the Depoe Bay Whale Watching Center at 800-551-6949.