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Get Ready: Feeding Frenzies and Humpbacks May Be Headed for Oregon / Washington Coast

Published 08/07/23 at 5:21 a.m.
y Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Get Ready: Feeding Frenzies and Humpbacks May Be Headed for Oregon / Washington Coast

(Astoria, Oregon) – It hasn't happened every year, but in the last decade most late summers seem to end up with a good run of humpback whales and some outlandish feeding frenzies in at least one stream on the north Oregon coast. The areas around the mouth of the Columbia River have been drawing in lots of baitfish in recent years, called a “baitball,” and that brings in humpback whales, scores of birds, and occasionally other sights to the southern Washington coast and north Oregon shores. (Above: Humpback in Astoria's waters, darting between boats. All photos courtesy Tiffany Boothe, Seaside Aquarium)

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There have been some minor sightings of humpbacks already, but these are likely just normal traffic past the area. Most notably there was a humpback entangled in fishing gear, which disappeared rather quickly. Crews Get Ready to Help Entangled Humpback Whale Off Oregon / Washington Coast, But It Disappears

Baitfish, like anchovies, herring and schade sometimes wind up here in great numbers – largely because of all the nutrients pouring down from the Columbia and even the Necanicum at Seaside. When that happens in late summer, around August or September, suddenly the whales swoop in.

Humpbacks love these baitballs, but so do pelicans and copious other species of fowl, so you'll consequently see a little rivalry in some ocean spots. Huge masses of birds can sometimes be seen smothering some chunks of ocean or the area around Long Beach and Astoria. It's then you'll likely see humpbacks in there.

One of the major, spectacular sights – albeit brief – is some true insanity in the Necanicum River between Seaside and Gearhart. Occasionally, these baitfish make runs upstream to gobble more nutrients, and then they too get gobbled by all the birds in a frenzied display. Other times, the run of baitfish get stuck going upstream or they eat up all the oxygen, die en masse and stink the hell out of the surrounding area.

When it comes to humpbacks, these displays have been wild as well. One year, there were a handful of them around Astoria, darting in and around the many boats there. Their presence is always accompanied by the frenetic presence of birds chomping on fishies.

Seaside Aquarium's Tiffany Boothe has documented many of these events since about 2014 – which seemingly didn't used to happen before then. It's an unusual and rather late development for the Oregon and Washington coast.

“Typically Humpbacks in our area are seen feeding during the summer months five to fifteen miles off the coast, but venture closer to follow bait balls of small fish,” she said. “A small handful of individuals have been known to brave the Columbia River when smolt runs are prolific and can spend a few days or a few weeks within the lower reaches of the river consuming up to 3,000 pounds of krill and small fish per day. A few great locations to see the river-exploring whales include Hammond Marina and Cape Disappointment State Park.”

They've also been known to loiter offshore from the Long Beach Peninsula fairly frequently during these times, and hover as far south as Cannon Beach, putting on a show in both areas.

Keep an eye on Oregon Coast Beach Connection for updates. If you have the Google News app you can follow news updates there.

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Andre' GW Hagestedt is editor, owner and primary photographer / videographer of Oregon Coast Beach Connection, an online publication that sees over 1 million pageviews per month. He is also author of several books about the coast.

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