The southern Oregon coast is famous for whale watching, and though the big migrations have ended there is still a summer pod hanging around. To help locals and the crowds of summer tourists spot whales during the next few months, Oregon Institute of Marine Biology (OIMB) senior instructor Jan Hodder talked about where to look and what to look for.
“People are fascinated by these animals because they are big, and they are harder to see,” Hodder said. “When you get a glimpse of them, it is very exciting and unusual because they spend so much time underwater where we aren't.”
The most common whale species to look for are the gray whales because of their distinct migration pattern from Baja, Mexico to the frigid waters of Alaska. The migration from Alaska to Mexico, where they will breed and give birth, can be seen off the coast here in December and January. Their migration back to Alaska is from February to May.
“There are some who stay here in the summer because a few of them have learned through time that this is a good place, or have had good experiences off our coast that have encouraged them to stay and feed,” Hodder said.
This group of resident whales are called the Pacific Coast Feeding Aggregation, and there are roughly 200 of them that don't go back to Alaska but instead stay off the Oregon, Washington, and Northern California coast.
Bill Binnewies is the volunteer coordinator for Bandon's Shoreline Education for Awareness. He explained that the resident whales, are also usually mothers with calves that only go as far as Oregon.
“You see them off Cape Arago, next to Simpson Reef,” Binnewies said. “That's where you have a good chance of seeing one, if your timing is good.”
Hodder said the summer whales can also be seen at Port Orford and Depot Bay.
“The only time you see a whale is when it comes to the surface to breathe,” she said, “and then sometimes you just see their backs. If they dive back down, you see them throw up their tails. If they start to roll, or go on their side, it means they are feeding.”
Other whales that can be seen this time of year are the killer whales, or orcas. These have been seen up and down the coast, and even inside the bay all the way up to The Mill Casino. Hodder said there are two types of orca. One is the transient killer whales that live in the open ocean from Southern California to British Columbia, and then the resident killer whales from the Puget Sound and Canada.
“The transient orcas eat mammals, seals, sea lions, dolphins, and other whales,” Hodder said. “We see those ones mostly in the spring when they come into our estuaries. We've even had them at Cape Arago eating seals.”
The resident orcas only eat fish, and also only come down to Coos Bay in the winter. Hodder said they are harder to see because the seas are usually stormy then, as well as foggy.
“They both are similar sizes,” Hodder said. “The average person wouldn't be able to tell them apart, but they do have certain features that are different, including differently shaped dorsal fins.”
Harder to see from shore are the largest of them all: the blue whale. There is a population on the West Coast, and if there are big schools of invertebrates, or shrimp-like animals, off the coast then the whales come closer.
Humpback whales are also common here when they go up to Alaska from the southern California and Mexico waters, but are often miles away from shore. The most likely to see them are fishermen, or recreational boats.
“Also common here are is the harbor porpoise,” Hodder said. “It is five feet long, and though it is common here it doesn't jump. You can only see the back as it rolls, and its triangle dorsal fin.”
However, whales aren't the only animal people should look for this summer. Binnewies and the rest of Shoreline Education for Awareness have coastline wildlife interpreters who point out animals to people. In the summer, they focus mainly on the birds that migrated down from Alaska, including the common murre, which is a penguin-like bird. Other birds include the tufted puffin and peregrine falcons, which nest on Face Rock in Bandon.
“We also have our interpreters at Simpson Reef at the Sunset Bay State Park because there is a big haul there of marine mammals,” Binnewies said. “Right now we have 14 elephant seals, as well as sea lions and harbor seals. We can have over 1,200 of them at any one time. It is very spectacular and quite exciting.”
The Shoreline Education for Awareness interpreters work in conjunction with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, who also send out representatives to do tide walks.
The Shoreline Education for Awareness interpreters are at Bandon's Face Rock on Fridays 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and the Coquille Point on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. They are are Sunset Bay State Park Fridays to Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Interpreters are set up with spotting scopes and wear blue jackets with a big sea emblem on the back. Not only will they point out animals and birds, but whales as well.
“The key to spotting a whale is you have to spend a lot of time out there looking,” Hodder said. “If you don't go look, you won't see them. The more you look, the more chances you have of seeing them. There's no special time to find them, and honestly you sometimes just get lucky.”