Twice a year, approximately 20,000 gray whales migrate along the Oregon Coast as they journey from feeding grounds to Alaska to breeding grounds in Baja California, Mexico, and then back to Alaska. Distance covered is about 1,300 miles, which ranks as the largest migration of any animal. The best viewing times are winter (mid-December through January) and late March to June, when the gray whales return north with their calves. Because of the large numbers of gray whales migrating, this article will focus on the gray whales. Here are my seven tips for gray whale watching along the Oregon Coast.
1. Watch For The Gray Whales (Gray Whale 101)
The most common whales seen along the Oregon Coast are the gray whales.
Females are about 45 feet in length (about the size of a school bus) and weigh about 8,000 pounds. Their two eyes are each the size of an orange with a mucus layer to protect them from the saltwater. Two blowholes on top of their head exhale all the carbon dioxide in their lungs. Gray whales have two lungs, each bigger than a home refrigerator.
Gray whales have two pectoral fins used for steering and moving around. The bones in the pectoral fins are similar to the bones in our hands. There is a dorsal hump -- gray whales do not have a dorsal fin. This is the best way to identify a gray whale. Bumps on their tail are called knuckles or ridges.
Their tail, called a fluke, is about 10 feet in length. The fluke is the primary propulsion device. Gray whales are bottom feeders. Instead of teeth, they have rows and rows of baleen on their top jaws, which they use to scoop up the ocean floor bottom sentiment for plankton and other small creatures. This scooping behavior is particular to the gray whales; other whales filter the water for nutrients. They turn on their right side for this behavior -- that is why they do not have many barnacles on the right side of their faces.
Gray whales can be spotted from the shore anywhere along the 362-mile Oregon Coast.
Watch for these four behaviors of the gray whales:
The Blow Or Spout
Gray whales may surface every 20 seconds, or every three to five minutes when feeding. The blow shoots up about 12 feet into the air expelling about 400 liters of air. So first, using your naked eye, watch for the blow. Once you have located the blow, turn to your binoculars or telephoto camera lens to catch other behaviors.
The breach is the behavior of the gray whale launching itself out of the water. Scientists are unsure why the whales exhibit this behavior, but it is exciting to watch.
Spyhop is the term given to whales when they lift their heads straight out of the water and then fall on their side, causing a giant splash. Scientists think that there are two reasons for this behavior: to see what is happening and to hear better.
The dive is also referred to as sounding or fluking. Here the gray whale lifts its tail flukes out of the water to propel itself down to the ocean floor, where it feeds on the tiny plankton.
2. Why Choose The Oregon Coast
There are two main reasons to choose the Oregon Coast for your whale watching adventure. Firstly, thanks to the 1967 Beach Bill, public access to the entire 362-mile Oregon Coastline is assured, and the area is often referred to as "The People's Coast." So, you have a vast coastline along which to experience this fascinating migration.
The second reason to choose the Oregon Coast for your whale watching is The Whale Watching Spoken Here Program, sponsored by Oregon State Parks. Twice yearly, volunteers are posted at the 26 best whale-watching sites along the Oregon Coast. One week is during the southern migration and the second week is during the northern migration. Typically, these dates are the week between Christmas and New Year's and a week in late March. Check the link above for recent information.
A third week has been recently added to the Whale Watching Program: the last week of August through the first Monday in September. During this time, the focus is the resident whales around Lincoln City and Newport -- a distance of fewer than 25 miles. The resident whales seem to particularly enjoy feeding on the tiny shrimp off the reef areas of Depoe Bay and are often sighted less than one-half mile from the shore.
3. Best Times To Watch For Gray Whales
As mentioned, the two peak watching times are mid-December through January and late March through June. During the south winter migration, one usually can spot 25 to 30 whales per hour; however, they are generally about five miles offshore. The spring migration is much more leisurely and takes place over three and a half months. During this time, one usually spots about six whales per hour, but they are only about one-half mile from shore.
Calmer days of the ocean are best for sighting the whales. Morning is also a good time because the sun is at your back, making it easier to spot the whale behaviors.
4. Where To Go
Here are my favorite sites for whale watching.
Depoe Bay Whale Watching Center
Without a doubt, The Depoe Bay Whale Watching Center is my favorite whale watching center along the entire Oregon Coast. The area is often referred to as the Whale Watching Capital of the Oregon Coast, and for a good reason. Open year-round, volunteers welcome guests and provide interesting facts about migrating and resident whales. The center has telescopes to help you find the whales. For armchair travelers, check out Watch Whales Live Cam and follow the migrations from the comfort of your own home.
The Whale Watching Center is located next to the world's smallest navigable harbor, Depoe Bay. The center is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Cape Lookout State Park
Cape Lookout State Park, located about 8 miles from Tillamook, is one of Oregon's largest state parks and is known to be a prime location for whale watching. The facilities are outstanding. It is also a Whale Spoken Here Site.
The beach at Cape Lookout is protected by a 50-foot sloping structure of cobblestone rocks to protect the shore from erosion. In order to reach the beach, you must walk through this structure, called a revetment. Thus the beach is not universally accessible; however, there are paved pathways to view the ocean from small cliffs.
There is a day-use parking fee. Check this link for information on one-day passes and yearly passes for Oregon State Parks.
Cape Meares State Scenic Viewpoint
Another one of Oregon's premier sites for whale watching, Cape Meares State Scenic Viewpoint, is located 15 miles north of Cape Lookout. Along with key viewpoints are interpretive signs with great information. There is also an 1890s lighthouse and one of the continent's largest common murre colonies and nesting sites.
There are picnic sites and restrooms. Some of the pathways are rather steep and may be difficult for some.
Otter Crest State Scenic Viewpoint And Devil's Punch Bowl
Otter Crest State Scenic Viewpoint and Devil's Punch Bowl are located just south of Depoe Bay. To get there, take the Otter Crest Loop off Highway 101. Turn right on Otter Street.
The panoramic views here are incredible as you are 400 to 500 feet above the Pacific Ocean. At this site, you really need your binoculars.
There are a small parking lot and safety fences. It can be very windy here. The two sites are located on the southern point of Cape Foulweather, aptly named because there can be powerful winter winds here. Dress for the weather.
5. Where To Stay
There is no shortage of accommodation along the Oregon Coast -- whether you are looking for hotels, motels, budget rooms, or luxury suites, there is something for everyone.
If you are looking for campgrounds, here are two that I recommend: My first recommendation is Cape Lookout State Park. There are 13 yurts, six deluxe cabins, 170 tent sites, 38 full hookups, and numerous picnic sites. Six of the yurts and three of the cabins are universally accessible.
If you are looking for camping closer to the Central Oregon Coast, try South Bend State Park. Located just south of Yaquina Bay in Newport, the park features 227 sites with full electricity and water hookups, 60 tent sites, and 27 yurts. Close by are two of the best educational institutions in Oregon: Hatfield Marine Science Center and the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Take time to visit.
6. What To Bring
7. How To Safely Watch For Gray Whales
The best whale watching areas are those high above the Pacific Ocean. On such cliffs, remember to respect the fences or barriers. Never climb up or step beyond the fences.
If there are no fences or guardrails, stay away from the cliff edges. They can be unstable and very slippery.
Remember as well that Oregon winters along the coastline can be very windy. In sites such as Cape Foulweather, winter winds can be 90 to 100 miles per hour. Plan accordingly.
I prefer whale watching from the shore. There are also commercial businesses that offer whale watching cruises and flights. For information and contact numbers, check this link.
Thousands of gray whales migrate along the Oregon Coast. What a sight they are to see! There are numerous places to watch for them along the huge Oregon Coastline. Visit some of my favorite locations to watch this wonderful spectacle! And for more Oregon inspiration, consider: