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In the Heat of Oregon Coast Whale Watch Week, Why Whales Are Harder to Spot in Storms

Published 12/28/23 at 5:45 a.m.
B
y Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

(Oregon Coast) – Whale Watch Week on the Oregon coast got off to a stormy start, with heavy wave action out there to the tune of waves 25 feet high or more. That can affect how many whales you see, but the payoff is you get to witness gnarly breakers. (Photo Seaside Aquarium)

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Whale Watch Week and huge waves are major Oregon coast attractions, but the storms have definitely taken a bite out of sightings. The event lasts until New Year's Eve this year, and it means some 15,000 whales are wandering past here during this whole migration period – roughly December through mid-January.

Thursday (today) will feature more tidal madness, but those 15 spots along the Oregon coast with volunteers will still be there. According to the National Weather Service (NWS), this should be the last of the really high waves as conditions calm going into Friday. However, another storm system may start barreling in on Saturday offshore, putting wave height around 15 feet or more.

So what's happening with waves that makes it harder to spot whales? Are they spooked by storms?

Not really, say scientists, or at least they don't think so.

Most importantly, with wave height such as what's been happening this week, these make for a kind of “trough” which hides the whales. They cover up the whales. That's the short answer.

However, there could be something about storms that turns them away. Experts from the Whale Watch Center have in the past told Oregon Coast Beach Connection some scientists believe whales could be disoriented or even battered around a little by large waves, and sometimes enormous gusts could change their sense of direction. They are by and large known for being OK when coming up for air in large swells.

Nothing is proven here. Research on this has so far been quite elusive, even impossible to execute, because – simply – humans can't go dashing around the ocean during storms to track them. Indeed, neither can most of our technical gear.


Photo Oregon State Parks

Yet it's also possible whales find their favorite food here – mysid shrimp – getting tossed around too much down in Davey Jones' Locker.

How Storms - Even Solar Storms - May Affect Whales on Oregon / Washington Coast

Back in 2007, when major storms were lashing the Oregon and Washington coast, the Whale Watch Center told Oregon Coast Beach Connection whales really disappeared. Morris Grover was the head of the center back then, and he said it was quite possible the whales were in the midst of migration anyway, so they just high-tailed it through faster.

Either way, your better bets for whale-spotting are on calmer days – at least calmer than 20-foot-plus waves.

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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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