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Oregon Coast Whales' Surprise Numbers Through Spring, Summer, w/ Babies

Published 03/24/2016 at 6:51 PM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Photo: Gray whale at Seaside, courtesy Seaside Aquarium

(Depoe Bay, Oregon) – The famed Whale Watch Week may be the big and much-touted attraction in the springtime, but the Oregon coast stays full of gray whale sightings for long after that. What you don't know about whales in April and May – and even summer – will surprise you. (Photo: Gray whale at Seaside, courtesy Seaside Aquarium).

Luke Parsons, head of the Whale Watch Center in Depoe Bay, said there are still plenty of grays migrating past this area through to mid April in great numbers. Then the amounts trail off a bit until you have a large run of female whales with their newborn calves in tow through to May, possibly into June.

Then come the so-called “resident” whales, which linger mostly on the central Oregon coast, from Lincoln City down through about Bandon. These hang out from May until about October or November, and they're the ones who can cause a big, gasp-induced stir by lingering so close to shore you can look into their eyes.

Baby Whales Coming, More Grays. With Whale Watch Week in full swing right now, and more northward migration happening into mid-April, Parsons said what you're seeing is largely single males and females moving past.

“This year we've already seen a few whales with their young,” Parsons said. “Not a lot of mothers and calves, but a few.”

The total population of gray whales that wanders past here is about 18,000, Parsons said. That doesn't mean all will come through during Whale Watch Week, but instead over the period starting March through late May.

When you divide up the populations by what they're up to, things start to get interesting. There are more whales for you to spot during whale week and into April, but the mothers and their newborns are coming in decent droves.

“50 percent of females with calves are still down there at this point, which makes about a quarter of the population,” Parsons said. “You're seeing about three quarters of the population coming up now. So, in late April and May it's about one quarter.”

These pairs, in turn, can put on an incredible show when they start to loiter close to shore, looking for food. Spots they often turn to are in the Depoe Bay area, Whale Cove (just south of town), Seaside's cove area (northern face of Tillamook Head), and Cape Meares near Oceanside.

Killer Whales in April. April and May is also when a certain mysterious pod of Killer whales swoops in to try and eat the baby grays. Known as transients, little is known about where they come from, except that they're chasing baby gray whales. When they hit the central Oregon coast it's quite a display, as they're often seen gunning towards prey through the near-shore area and even jumping out of the water.

Resident Whales and What Their Food is Up To. Late spring and early summer bring the residents, which are really a mish-mash of grays that return regularly and stick around the central Oregon coast, from Bandon all the way up to Lincoln City. There's a heavier concentration of them in the Depoe Bay area, however, because of the rocky reefs which host more of their food source.

It's all about food, Parsons said. They feed on krill and mycid shrimp, and these areas are full of this because of the thick kelp forests. Gray whales chomp on about 500 pounds to 2,000 pounds of the tiny creatures everyday.

“Shrimp and krill are in the kelp forests, thinking they can hide,” Parsons said.

The rocky cliffs and marine garden areas of Depoe Bay, Fogarty Beach, Otter Loop Road, Yaquina Head and Yachats are thicker with kelp forests than other spots. The north Oregon coast doesn't have that kind of near-shore terrain, however. Summer whales don't really exist up there as they do farther south.

Because of the central coast layout, summer whales are more apt to do incredibly spectacular moves like linger right up next to the shore at Fogarty, parts of Depoe Bay and even Yachats. They can get closer than 50 feet at times, creating gasps of astonishment from beachgoers.

Somewhere along the line, certain segments of the grays just figured out there was more food here, creating these summer residents.

“Turns out it's the same ones that keep coming back,” Parsons said. “They have calves and they learn to come back, and then they in turn have calves and they start coming back.” Where to stay for this - Where to eat - Maps and Virtual Tours

Parsons said the residents here are a good mix of female, male and young and old. At first, scientists thought maybe it was older whales that were lingering here, simply trying to take things a bit easier in their golden years. But researchers soon found it was a solid cross section of the whole population of gray whales. More about Oregon Coast Whales, and how to spot them.

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