OREGON COAST - Gray whales are on the move south again this winter, and the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department is celebrating the annual event with Whale Watching Week, Dec. 27-31.
Visitors to the Oregon coast will have the opportunity to glimpse some of the estimated 20,000 gray whales traveling south from Alaska to their final destination off the coast of Baja, Mexico.
Volunteers from the Whale Watching Spoken Here program will be stationed at 24 sites along the Oregon coast during the event. From 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. each day, they'll offer whale watching tips and facts about the animals. Each year from December to mid-January, gray whales swim 6,000 miles down the Pacific coast to reach calving lagoons near the Baja peninsula.
Local Whale Watching Spoken here sites include: Sea Lion Caves Turnout in Florence; Umpqua Lighthouse State Park in Reedsport; Shore Acres State Park in Charleston; Face Rock Scenic Viewpoint in Bandon; Battle Rock Wayside in Port Orford; and Harris Beach State Park in Brookings.
Gray whales are visible from Oregon’s shore nearly year-round, but two weeks every year are special. The winter and spring Whale Watch Weeks along the Oregon coast are recognized as some of the best opportunities to view the annual gray whale migration anywhere in the world.
Luke Parsons, an OPRD ranger with the Whale Watching Center in Depoe Bay, says one of the goals of the event is to create awareness and compassion for whales and other marine life.
"Whales are a special part of the Oregon coast," said Parsons. "Nearly 20,000 people visit our whale watch sites each winter and are educated by our excellent volunteers. I hope visitors walk away feeling a little more connected to these animals, along with a greater appreciation of our oceans."
A map of the 24 volunteer whale watch sites can be found on whalespoken.wordpress.com. Camping, including yurts and cabins, is available at state parks along the coast. Visit oregonstateparks.org for information and to make a reservation.
In 1978, Don Giles of the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport headed out to Yaquina Head Lighthouse with his binoculars and a great idea. Colleagues Bruce Mate and Denise Herzing were counting gray whales migrating past Yaquina Head. They confirmed what Giles and others intuitively knew: Gray whale migrations along the Oregon coast peak during two special times of the year. The southbound migration happens during the winter holiday season, and the northbound has one of its two peaks near the end of March.
This knowledge motivated Giles to create the Whale Watching Spoken Here program. Since 1978, it has grown to become one of the most organized onshore whale watching programs in the United States.
Reasons for success
Location: Thanks to the 1967 Beach Bill, public access is protected along virtually the entire Oregon coastline. In addition, most of the whale watching locations are located in or near state parks.
Abundant whales: Researchers estimate that 18,000-plus gray whales now live in the eastern north Pacific area. About 30 whales per hour migrate past the Oregon coast during the peak southbound migration. By comparison, six per hour pass by on the northbound trip, but that return trip is spread over four months. Some 200-plus of these whales drop off the migration route and feed along the Oregon coast all summer.
Timing: The migrations peaks coincide nicely with times when many visitors are able to visit the coast. Since the main emphasis is on volunteers meeting and greeting visitors interested in whale watching, Giles and another colleague, Bev Lund, coined the phrase, “Whale Watching Spoken Here.”
Volunteers: Thousands have volunteered since the program's inception. Today, there are more than 300 active volunteers that make this effort possible.