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Six Things They Don't Tell You About Oregon Coast Whale Watch Week

Published 12/29/2019 at 5:55 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Six Things They Don't Tell You About Oregon Coast Whale Watch Week

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(Depoe Bay, Oregon) – Along the west coast of the U.S. (and Canada and Mexico) there are some 20,000 whales that live in the region. Of those, a good chunk are migrating during the two whale weeks of the year, swooping by the Oregon coast.

There’s more to those whale watch weeks, however. Here are six surprises about these whales and how to spot them.

It Doesn’t End on December 31. In actuality, there’s still a lot of whales to be spotted along the Oregon coast and Washington coast just before Whale Watch Week and just after. The peak migration runs from early December through mid January, and then it starts to taper off fast before they more or less disappear by February. So if you’ve missed out on the Christmas or spring break week with all the volunteers, all is not lost. Not by a long shot.

There’s about a month break and then whales with their newly birthed young start streaming up the coastline towards Alaska, starting in early March. Often, numbers spike early on, though the spring break whale week is later in the month. They keep bouncing through into April and May – along with the Orcas and Humpbacks.

Utilize High Vantage Points. Stick to any high vantage point spots and you’ll increase your field of view of the ocean, and stick to calmer conditions. The key to spotting whales is three things: patience, lower wave height (so they don’t get hidden) and binoculars really helps. All those tall cliff spots used in the Whale Watch Week are great, but there are many more, of course. Look for Anderson’s Viewpoint near Oceanside (above), the high pullout area between Yachats and Cape Perpetua, Jump-Off Joe in Newport’s Nye Beach, Silver Point near Cannon Beach and some of the more soaring accesses at Lincoln City like NW 26th St. and NW 21st, among others.

Other Whales. Humpback whales and Orcas sometimes get spotted marauding through the area too, although it’s rarer to encounter these. Your chances increase during the spring when the Killer Whales come through looking to eat the baby whales. It’s still not easy to spot those – you need a lot of luck - but if you do it’s spectacular. (Above: Orcas near Florence, courtesy Seaside Aquarium).

Central Oregon Coast is Prime. You can still catch sight of plenty of whales at northern Oregon coast areas like Cape Kiwanda, Manzanita or Cape Disappointment on the Washington coast, or down at major south coast locales such as the Boardman region or Bandon. But the central Oregon coast’s Depoe Bay area, and often around Yachats, are often the best viewing spots. They tend to come closer to shore in those rocky areas, feeding on mysid shrimp and other goodies found in those waters.

There are around 75 “resident” whales in the Depoe Bay area at any one time, though the group shifts and changes members throughout the year. It’s these that come close in. For even more on these kinds of surprises, see the Depoe Bay book.

Above: a whale and her baby calf (courtesy Seaside Aquarium)

Boat Tours. For an even better view and highly increased chances of seeing them, hit the boat tours. You’ll find a few in Depoe Bay and Newport (and some occasionally in Garibaldi). These take you out a ways and you’ll suddenly find yourself spotting not just three or four during the trip but often they’ll come quite close.

Striking Whale Behaviors. The two highlights of any whale watching experience is breaching and spyhopping, where they pop out of the water and maybe leap into the air. (At right: a spyhop).

Breaching is when whales lunge out of the water, sometimes getting airborne. They’ve been known to do this a few times a year, according to Morris Grover, the Whale Watching Center’s leader back in 2007. He spoke to Oregon Coast Beach Connection at the time, saying he’d seen this a few times that year, with the whales nearly completely out of the water, with only their tales still in the ocean as they jump out for a second. He described it as looking a bit like a submarine when it makes an emergency surface.

This is no small feat to get these great behemoths into the air to any degree. They weigh about 70,000 pounds, or about 35 tons.

Another exciting sight is when whales do spyhops. This is when they briefly emerge from the water with their eyes fixed on something, apparently looking at the world around them. “I’ve seen them do that, then go down into the water, spin around 180 degrees, and come back so that the other eye is facing the same direction as the last eye was,” Grover said back in 2007. “They are extremely agile under water, and can spin around or maneuver very quickly."

Whales are extremely curious about us too – as much as we are about them.

Another fascinating behavior – although this happens more in the spring – is when they suddenly, ominously disappear from view at the Depoe Bay Whale Watching Center. Then, as current leader Luke Parsons put it, they’ll be gone for awhile and then in an hour or two you’ll see Orcas. The gray whales get that sense early on and they hightail it out of the area. See Best of Oregon Coast Lodging for Whale Watching, Whale Watch Week

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