Watching for whale tails

It was 42 years ago when Don Giles of the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport trekked out to Yaquina Head Lighthouse with a pair of binoculars to look for grey whales. Along with fellow marine biologists Bruce Mate and Denise Herzing, the trio verified what their instincts told them: the migration of grey whales along the Oregon coastline occurred like clockwork twice a year — southbound in the winter and northbound in the spring.

The discovery launched the Whale Watching Spoken Here program, which still continues today more than four decades later. And even though safety restrictions necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic means there will be no rangers “speaking whale” at locations along the central Oregon coast as in past years, the winter migration of grey whales from Alaska to Mexico continues.

And so do opportunities for visitors to watch them. In the winter, nearly 20,000 gray whales swim and breach their way along the coast of Oregon between mid-December and mid-January to the warmer waters and lagoons of Baja Mexico.

Typically, park rangers and volunteers are onsite at two dozen whale watching locations along the Oregon coast, informing and educating visitors about the whale migration and helping people spot them.

This winter, as it was with spring, there won’t be volunteers at those locations and the ODPR’ Whale Watching Center in Depoe Bay will remain closed, as it has been since the March shutdown.

Keep in mind that spotting gray whales takes a fair amount of patience. It’s helpful to use binoculars while scanning the ocean slowly near the shoreline in search of telltale spouts — similar in appearance to a vertical spray of mist much like a geyser.

Visitors can also look for a tail to break the surface, which sometimes emerge from the water as whales dive.

If luck is really on your side, you might even spot a breaching whale, which is when they break the surface before crashing back into the water.

It is also important to remember that winter whale watching along the Oregon coast can present certain dangers when stormy weather or high tides are occurring. At those times, avoid jetties, rocky shorelines and other potentially dangerous locations that 

could wash a would-be whale watcher into the ocean or against the rocks.

In addition, maintain distance of at least 6 feet from those not in your group, and wear a face mask to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

With a little patience, and while following safety measures, the annual migration of grey whales can be enjoyed unti the chance to “speak whale” returns next season.


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