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Orcas Spotted Along Oregon Coast; Gray Whales Kicking Up Numbers

Published 03/09/2019 at 5:53 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Orcas Spotted Along Oregon Coast; Gray Whales Kicking Up Numbers

(Depoe Bay, Oregon) – Gray whale numbers are really starting to pick up along the Oregon coast, and that also means killer whales seem to be in the mix as well. (Photo above: Orcas at Depoe Bay in previous years, courtesy Whale Watching Center).

Two reports of Orca sightings came in from the central Oregon coast, and they're causing a stir. One Oregon Coast Beach Connection reader reported seeing them near Cape Perpetua (around Yachats), while another striking report came from South Beach, at Newport. There, Surfrider Foundation’s Charlie Plybon said he saw four or five of them on Thursday, heading north.

Sheanna Steingass, Marine Mammal Program Leader with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), said this fits the profile of what are known as the “transient Orcas” that wander the west coast. These are a slightly different subset of Orcas which look a little different than those from Puget Sound that come down here occasionally.

The general wisdom around the state, including various Facebook groups that discuss whales of the area, is that these are likely on their way to the Columbia River area to make a meal out of the many seals there.

Steingass agrees.

“They are most likely headed to the Columbia,” she said. “In the last few weeks, the number of pinnipeds there has more than tripled. When you get these smelt runs kicking up on the Columbia, you get the pinnipeds there to eat those. So transient Orcas start coming up there looking for those congregations.”

Runs of herring or any baitfish result in everyone showing up at the same time to dine on the increased food chain. This is why Humpbacks appear in great numbers along the north Oregon coast in the late summer: they’re following the baitfish, and so are the pelicans and other birds.

Later, the transient Orcas stick around to seek out baby gray whales on their migration north, then generally hang out until May or June.

“Now is the time to follow the pinnipeds and in a month or so they will start tracking gray whales,” Steingass said. “However, I will say that gray whales are probably more of a hit-and-miss food source, while pinnipeds this time of year are always there.”

In April, that’s when the transients turn their attention to baby gray whales in tow along the migration. But they’re not nearly as successful a food source as the seals and sea lions.

“Moms are really protective of their young and that’s why they really hug the coastline as they migrate,” Steingass said. “In middle of that there’s the baby whales, and those transient killer whales will go after them as well.”

Not much is known about the transient killer whale pods. They’re an elusive mystery. Unlike the grays, they don’t seem to have a breeding ground and their territory is vast. This group of Orcas is also not like the Orcas from Puget Sound, which eat salmon and other fish, occasionally wandering as far as south as the southern Oregon coast.

“There’s a lot of important areas for them,” Steingass said. “There are the resident killer whales of Puget Sound, but the transients also spend some time up north. But they’re a lot more mobile up and down the west coast. There’s less known about them – less work being done.”

Steingass, like other scientists, is itching to study these Orcas more closely, even do some tagging – which has been done extensively with gray whales.

“I’ve love to learn more, but logistically they’re so challenging,” she said. “When you have a group of unpredictable animals out on the ocean, moving around, then you can’t approach them and it’s not easy to know what they’re going to do.”

Luke Parsons, head of the Whale Watching Center in Depoe Bay, said he’s not really sure if it’s the fish-eating Orcas of the Puget Sound or the transients being seen. But one thing is for sure: whale sightings are spiking, just in time for the peak migration happening near the end of the month.

Parsons said the center spotted four whales in the one hour he was at there on Friday. During its full day on Thursday the spotted eight whales.

In short, heading north to the Columbia River area is probably your best bet now to see Orcas. Then in April, the central Oregon coast will the hotspot for the massive beasts. Oregon Coast Lodgings for this - Where to eat - Maps - Virtual Tours









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