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Whale Numbers Soar Along Washington, Oregon Coast - Rarities Too

Published 08/19/2019 at 6:33 PM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Whale Numbers High Along Washington, Oregon Coast - Rarities Too

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(Oregon Coast) – A perfect storm of stellar weather, lots of eyes to make more reports and unusually warm water conditions have resulted in an enormous swell of whale sightings along the Oregon coast. Not only is there simply an abundance of whales to be spotted – the population is just bigger right now – but there are a host of different species being seen as well. Plenty of gray whales are popping up and documented in stunning detail, but Humpbacks are prevalent too, along with some amazing sightings of rarities like blue whales and even a beaked whale. (Photo above: gray whale at Oceanside in July, courtesy Seaside Aquarium).

Then, of course, there was that sad incident of a live beached baby whale in Waldport that didn’t end well.

The various social media pages devoted to whale watching along the Oregon coast are lighting up like Christmas trees these days, showing video and photos of all sorts of finds. The sheer numbers of sightings and whale populations have skyrocketed, according to Depoe Bay Whale Watch Center leader Luke Parsons, but the population of people is bigger too.

“Excitement about whales right now is really high,” Parsons said. “We are shattering attendance records.”

That’s a part of all the sightings: just more people are out there right now because it’s summer. So, more eyes are on the shoreline to document the finds. Great weather makes them easier to spot from shore, and that’s helped. Whales themselves are in greater numbers because of that lovely weather – which is causing something slightly unusual, according to Dr. Bruce Mate with the Marine Mammal Institute in Newport. There’s less upwelling than usual this summer, and thus less colder waters, so warmer waters are bringing more critters towards shore.

“This summer we’re not getting as many northwest winds,” Mate said. “So we’re not getting much upwelling. There is warmer water closer to shore.”

Most summers see a fair amount of fog in the afternoons, or at least marine layers just offshore. This hasn’t been the case – a sure sign of higher ocean temperatures next to the shoreline.

This, in turn, brings all sorts of beasties large and small closer in, especially species normally seen in deeper waters. Their food is coming in: krill are what whales eat. Tuna and salmon do too, bringing them in with the whales.

“I’ve talked to fishermen out there and a month ago the tuna were 120 miles offshore,” Mate said. “Last week they were 40 miles offshore.”

One of the most stunning finds was the quirky-looking beaked whale spotted in Depoe Bay this week. Ship captains and tour boat customers from businesses like Whale Research Eco Excursions spotted one, and social media lit up with the photos of only two or three people. Its oddball rounded head and different coloring floored many in the northwest.

Dr. Mate said beaked whales are not commonly seen off the Oregon coast – though they do live farther out and in deeper waters. Strandings of beaked whales are extremely rare: Mate said only 22 have washed up on this coastline since 1989.

Humpbacks are reported left and right along the central Oregon coast but sometimes not as much as usual up north. Normally, this time of year they’re gobbling baitfish between Cannon Beach, Seaside and Astoria. Parsons said it doesn’t appear they made it that far this time around, presumably because they’re getting so well fed off the central coast.

“There’s a big group of Humpbacks in the area this week,” Parsons said Monday. “We spotted one just this morning from the Whale Watch Center.”

The Washington coast and the southern Oregon coast are also getting quite the show. Even with the big population of Humpbacks farther south, the Facebook whale watching group for Clatsop and Pacific counties is reporting plenty of Humpbacks and gray whales off Long Beach, Washington, and down through Seaside. One report seemed to indicate a baby Humpback in the Columbia River but that’s still not quite confirmed.

Blue whales made a splash off the Washington and Oregon coasts last week. This animal is the largest on Earth, getting up to 110 feet long. Researchers from Cascadia Research Collective made a very rare sighting of these off Westport, Washington, this month.

Earlier in July, OSU’s Leigh Torres discovered a larger-than-usual group of them off Bandon, calling that an “exciting” find.

Mate said it’s not unusual for blue whales to be wandering offshore from Oregon during the summer.

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All these warmer waters have affected other creatures as well, which is why the coast has seen a few dead sharks wash up lately. Mate said there were five different incidents of stranded sharks in recent weeks.

There were reports of Orcas last month, as if this potpourri of whales wasn't enough.

It’s further evidence that these deeper water-dwelling creatures are coming in closer than usual. Beaked whales and sharks normally live in areas 500 meters deep or more, Mate said. Exactly where these deeper water areas are depends on the location: some are nearer to the shorelines and some are much farther away. In many cases, however, deeper waters are around five miles out, which is where you’d normally find animals like thresher sharks or beaked whales.

As long as these scarce upwelling conditions exist off the Washington coast and Oregon, beachgoers around the Pacific Northwest will get an eyeful. September is known as "second summer" - the best weather of the year on Oregon's coast - which could bode well for continuation of these whale numbers for at least another month. Oregon Coast Hotels for this event - Where to eat - Map - Virtual Tour

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