A log bobbing on a flat sea?
I had stopped at the state wayside at Ophir on my way back from Gold Beach early last week to enjoy the view. The sea was flat and the sky leaden, making everything seem indistinct, but there was clearly something in the water not too far off the beach.
I thought it was a log until I noticed it was moving more than the waves were, and I got a glimpse of a wispy spout — then it disappeared.
The long dark shape came up again, the north end breaking the surface just before the rest of it, followed a moment later by a rather sharply-arched back. The back briefly formed a low, isosceles triangle, with a small, slightly-curved dorsal fin on top, before slipping under the water.
Gray whales are currently migrating north along the Oregon Coast, as this animal was, traveling close to shore — as this animal was. But this clearly wasn’t a gray whale.
Gray whales have gently rounded heads, and usually only the back of their heads, near the blowhole, barely shows above the water when they spout. Gray whale backs are rounded, too, showing just a shallow, rolling curve — and a curve with small “knuckles” along the ridge, but no dorsal fin.
The cloud-dulled sunlight and cloud-colored sea meant I couldn’t see the spout of the mystery whale well enough to identify it. In that light, the back looked smooth gray — and I felt it was close enough that I probably could’ve seen the characteristic mottling on the back if this had been a gray whale.
The shape and color of the flukes, the end of the tail, can also help identify a whale, but this animal didn’t show its flukes.
Oregon’s offshore waters are traveled by several species of great whales; gray whales are most familiar because they are the most common and because they travel close to shore, where us land mammals can more easily see them.
Offshore, beyond the horizon if you’re standing on the beach, rarer humpbacks and even more rare blue whales swim and feed, as do sperm whales and minke whales, plus several others. Occasionally those deep-water cetaceans wander close to shore or end up onshore when they sicken or die. In fact, in November of 2015 a dead blue whale washed up on the Ophir beach right where I watched the mystery whale last week.
Orca, our largest dolphin, come nearshore to hunt seals and sea lions, but their tall, black dorsal fins make them readily identifiable.
After I got home, I contacted Dr. Jan Hodder, Senior Lecturer at the University of Oregon’s marine station, Oregon Institute of Marine Biology, in Charleston, where she teaches classes about marine mammals. While my description was sketchy — and my photograph worse — she thought the animal was likely a minke whale.
A subsequent online search found images of the flat head I initially mistook for a log and images of the triangle back with small fin that matched. Further, I found this confirming quote from the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife’s wildlife viewing site, “[Minke whales] are often recognized by surfacing snout first…” — which explained the “log” rising on the leading end first.
With a maximum length of about 35’ long, minke whales are the second smallest baleen whales — only pygmy right whales are smaller — and said to be the sleekest. (Gray whales can grow to nearly 50’ long.) Found nearly worldwide, minkes live in both the north Atlantic and north Pacific; the closely related dwarf minke whales live in the Southern Hemisphere.
What I couldn’t see from the beach was the pattern of white and gray on the belly and sides of this whale, nor could I see the broad white band on the dark pectoral fins. I also couldn’t hear the growls and buzzes minkes are reported to make underwater.
As in other baleen whales, minkes draw water into their mouths then strain the water by pushing it through the fringed sheets of baleen hanging from the top gums. Food, mostly fish and krill in the minkes’ case, is trapped by the baleen and swallowed.
I’m not sure if this whale was feeding while swimming along the shoreline, nor could I guess why it was even there, but I am sure I’m delighted I saw it — both for the thrill of a first sighting and for the fun unraveling a mystery.
Want to find out more about our whales — especially the ones you’re most likely to see from land?
Now’s a great time.
Spring Break is also Spring Whale Watch Week, this year from March 24-31. Specially trained volunteers for the Whale Watching Spoken Here program will help you see and learn about gray whales at 24 Oregon Coast sites each of those days from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Local sites are Umpqua Lighthouse State Park south of Winchester Bay, Shore Acres Gardens cliffs west of Charleston, and Face Rock Scenic Viewpoint in Bandon. For more information, visit https://oregonstateparks.org/index.cfm?do=thingstodo.dsp_whaleWatching
For online information about Oregon’s most common whales in general, check out ODFW’s wildlife watching site: https://myodfw.com/wildlife-viewing/species/whales-dolphins-and-porpoises
Happy Whale Watching!