Oregon’s ocean in late December: stormy seas, crashing surf and spouting whales. Gray whales have been migrating along our coast for nearly a month now, but the winter holiday weeks are the time many people venture out to see them.
As about 18,000 gray whales pass by the Oregon coast, perhaps as many humans flock to the shore to catch a glimpse.
The most visible thing about a live wild whale is its “blow” or spout; the spout of each species of whale is a characteristic size and shape. Up to 45 feet long, gray whales are a mid-sized baleen whale and therefore blow mid-sized spouts — still impressive, though, at nearly 12 feet tall. A gray whale’s spout is about 400 liters of hot, moist whale breath, plus a bit of water that hadn’t quite rolled off the blow-hole when the whale exhaled as it rose to the surface. The condensing breath of a gray whale forms a plume-shaped spout Whale spouts seem to suddenly erupt from the sea, hang in the air for a few or several seconds (depending on wind), then dissipate.
Sometimes the mottled gray back is seen as the whale surfaces to spout.
Gray whales generally spout about every 45 seconds while swimming straight-away. After several spouts, grays often then dive below, usually flashing their flukes (the wide, flat part at the end of the tail) just above the surface as they turn down. The raised and lowered flukes may leave a flat circular eddy on the surface — a “fluke print.”
After diving, a gray whale may swim below without breathing for several minutes — and several hundred yards — or more before coming back up for air. A frightened gray whale may swim below the surface for up to a half-hour before venturing to the surface to breathe.
The gray whales that pass Oregon shores now are swimming steadily south, heading for the warm lagoons of Baja. There pregnant females will give birth and fertile females will be courted by adult males. All the gray whales of the eastern Pacific will spend February in those warm waters; come March they’ll begin traveling back north.
Land-lubbers can watch gray whales from landside vantage points because the grays tend to stay much closer to shore than do other large whales — perhaps because they feed on the bottom in relatively shallow water, or perhaps they don’t echo-locate well and need the shoreline to navigate.
Dedicated and fortunate whale watchers may witness gray whales “spy-hopping,” poking their heads straight up out of the water to look around — likely to orient themselves and to locate landmarks.
Whale watchers who brave winter weather might also witness breaching (leaping partly out of the water), or courting (two or three whales swimming or rolling together) by the south-bound animals.
After their winter stay in Baja, the grays will travel back north to their summer feeding grounds in the Arctic. Gray whales undertake the longest migration of any mammal: up to 10,000 miles round-trip between Baja and the Arctic. (Yes, you may have seen gray whales spouting in summer: most summers a couple hundred gray whales spend the season feeding off Oregon’s coast instead of completing the journey to Arctic waters.)
Our view of these graceful mammals is ordinarily limited to a breathy spout and a slip of back as they pass near our habitat, but they fascinate us, none the less.