Whale Watching on the Oregon Coast

A few months ago, I shared a number of Great Spots to Watch Oregon’s Winter Storms. But winter storms are not the only thing that draws the crowds to our shoreline. Gray whales, which migrate farther than any mammal on Earth, can also be observed and volunteers all along the coast are eager to share their knowledge with you. Whale watching takes place almost year-round on the Oregon Coast.

Whale Migration

Each winter in the warm waters of Mexico, gray whales give birth, nurse their calves, rest and play before their long journey north in spring. They swim 5,000 miles along the Pacific coast from Mexico to the waters of the Arctic. The trip ends in the nutrient-rich feeding grounds of the Bering Sea in Alaska. In fall, they travel back to Mexico again to complete a round trip annual journey of 10,000 miles.

DepoeBayWe enjoyed a little weekend getaway this past weekend, driving north along Highway 101 to Newport. We stopped at numerous scenic points along the way to observe the waves crashing on rocky shoreline. In Depoe Bay, we visited with the Oregon Parks and Recreation volunteers who helped us to spot the gray whales migrating offshore.

The first phase (non-calves) of the northbound gray whale migration appears to have peaked and the second phase (moms with babies) is just beginning – just in time for Spring Whale Watch Week, March 19 – 26.

Whale Anatomy

Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the Whale Watching Center in Depoe Bay was constructed during the postwar period designed to serve the rapidly increasing ranks of the motoring public, while taking advantage of a unique scenic vista—the world’s smallest navigable harbor at Depoe Bay.

While here, we also took time to enjoy the touch tables and pictorial history inside the center. What fascinated me most was the whale ear bone pictured here.

whaleearbone

In land mammals, the fleshy pinna or the outside part of the ear helps collect sound and funnel it into the ear. That works because the acoustical properties of the air and flesh are different, so sound  gets channeled into the ear canal where it vibrates the eardrum and the ossicles (or ear bones).

In water, the acoustical properties of flesh and water are pretty similar, therefore the fleshy outside part of the ear serves no function. Though hearing in baleen whales is not well understood, in toothed whales, instead of sound coming in through the ear canal, sound comes in through fatty tissues in the jaws which are attached to an acoustic funnel. Scientists believe that the ossicles vibrate this fluid-filled inner ear.

whalebaleen

Baleen whales like the Grey Whale do not have teeth, instead they have 130 to 180 baleen plates that hang down each side of their upper jaws, like a fringed curtain. The plates are made out of fingernail-like material called keratin, the same substance found in human fingernails and hair. It makes the baleen strong, but still flexible.

Baleen is a filter-feeder system inside the mouths of baleen whales. The baleen system works when a whale opens its mouth underwater and the whale takes in water. The whale then pushes the water out, and animals such as krill are filtered by the baleen and remain as food source for the whale.

Inside the center, there was also a display that discussed how man has hunted the whale in the past for oil and baleen. It provided a fascinating reflection of how man has impacted our natural resources and how times have changed.

depoewildlifeOther Wildlife

Whales are not the only wildlife one can observe here at the Whale Watching Center. In addition to the whales we glimpsed with spotting scopes, we also observed the following at wayside viewing center:

  • Black Oystercatcher Haematopus bachmani
  • Black Turnstone Arenaria melanocephala
  • Pelagic Cormorant Phalacrocorax pelagicus
  • Several species of gulls
  • Ground Squirrel – species yet unidentified, but resembles Belding Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus beldingi)

Whale Watching Sites

Beginning north and traveling south along highway 101, the following locations are excellent view points from which to watch for whales.

  • Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, Cape Disappointment State Park
  • Neahkahnie Mountain, south of Cannon Beach
  • Cape Meares State Park
  • Boiler Bay State Scenic Viewpoint
  • The Whale Watching Center, Depoe Bay
  • Cape Foulweather
  • Cape Perpetua Stone Shelter
  • Sea Lion Caves Viewpoint
  • Umpqua River Whale Watching Station
  • Shore Acres State Park
  • Cape Arago State Park
  • Face Rock State Park
  • Battle Rock Wayfinding Point
  • Cape Sebastian
  • Klamath Overlook

For more detailed information on Whale Watching, download the brochure from the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.

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