In a few weeks, Oregon’s coastline will draw visitors both on land and in the sea as people flock to viewpoints along the coast for a chance to spot the annual spring gray whale northern migration from Mexico to Alaska.
Approximately 18,000 gray whales make the return trek from the warm-water lagoons in Baja California that serve as breeding grounds and nurseries from January through March, back to their feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi seas around Alaska.
While the southern trip to Mexico is at a more frantic pace, their return north is more leisurely, with the majestic mammals staying within a half mile of the shoreline with their young. Approximately 200 of these whales remain part-time residents off the Oregon coast between June and November. Of those, approximately 40 linger between Lincoln City and Newport.
During the peak migration time, which is from March 24-31 this season, hundreds of Whale Watching Spoken Here (WWSH) volunteers will man 26 sites along the coast from Ilwaco, Wash., to Crescent City, Calif., assisting visitors in spotting gray whales and answering questions.
WWSH locations within a relatively short distance of Florence include: The Cape Perpetua Visitor’s Center, Cook’s Chasm Turnout, Sea Lion Caves Turnout, Umpqua Lighthouse (Umpqua Lighthouse State Park) and The Whale Watching Center in Depoe Bay.
A complete map of Whale Watching Spoken Here” viewpoints is available online at www.whalespoken.org. According to data compiled by Oregon State Parks since 2013, Cape Perpetua is the fourth-best location to spot whales according to a ratio of whales-to-sightings as reported by WWSH volunteers. Sea Lions Caves was fifth, with the No. 1 location, according to statistics, is Umpqua Lighthouse State Park.
Gray whales are baleen whales, which means as they feed for crustaceans along the ocean floor, they roll onto their sides to scoop up water and sediments that are forced through fringed baleen plates that hang from each side of their upper jaws.
They have no teeth, so this filtration process is like panning for gold, except in this case the “gold” is the nutrients they feed on.
When looking for whales, the first thing visitors often spot is the telltale “blow” of water from one of the whales’ two spouts. These blows are not fountains of water, but are a geyser of mist that condenses as warm, moist air exhaled under high pressure from the whales’ lungs.
During the long 12,000-mile migration, the whales’ breathing pattern incorporates a rhythmic series of three to five short, shallow dives of 15 to 30 seconds. This is then followed by a long, deep dive of up to six minutes.
While watching for whales, keep this pattern in mind in order to increase chances of spotting a pod.
From time to time, whales exhibit a behavior known as “spy hopping,” when whales stick their heads straight up out of the water to take a look around.
The most exciting behavior, of course, is when whales breach, sending half to 3/4 of their bodies out of the water before creating a massive “splashdown” as they re-enter the water.
Beginning March 24, WWSH volunteers will be at locations marked with “Whale Watching Spoken Here” signs from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. each day through March 31.
For more information, visit www. whalespoken.org.