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.

California’s Central Coast: Ventura Beach

The past couple of years, we have enjoyed a week long holiday road trip in the spring. This year, we chose California’s Central Coast via Highway 1.

Ventura Beach @WellTraveledFamily.netWe departed Anaheim mid-day on Wednesday and headed to Ventura where we began our road trip northward along California Hwy 1. Upon checking into our hotel, the Ventura Beach Marriott, we ventured out to explore the area.

Ventura is home to beautiful beaches, a vibrant downtown, and a fun-filled harbor. Here, Island Packers’ crews transport guests via boat to the extraordinary Channel Islands National Park – one of three key destinations on our trip.

Our first stop was San Buenaventura State Beach which consists of a 1,700 feet pier featuring a snack bar, restaurant, and bait shop. People often come to this beach to surf, swim, and picnic. Biking is also done here and there are bike trails that lead to other nearby beaches.

While there, we observed a group of young people playing volleyball, another passing the time idly, as well as several runners and walkers. We eagerly began to explore the beach according to our interests – Patrick sat along the pier and watched for whales, Jeffrey rolled in the sand building an imaginary airstrip, while Geneva and I looked for small invertebrates.

Wildlife on Ventura Beach @WellTraveledFamily.net

We were were rewarded handsomely finding hundreds of Pacific Mole Crabs (Emerita analoga). Belonging to the superfamily, Hippoidea, these decapod crustaceans are adapted to burrowing into sandy beaches. These delightful little sand crabs cannot walk; instead, they use their legs to dig into the sand and beat their uropods to swim.

Geneva and I spent time watching them surf the waves and burrow down into the sand for protection. I shared stories of the investigation I undertook in graduate school one summer looking at whether particle size influenced what beach the larvae settled upon.

We also observed many By-the-wind Sailors (Velella velella).  Velella is a cosmopolitan genus of free-floating hydrozoans (very small, predatory animals) that live on the surface of the open ocean. There is only one known species. The deep blue, by-the-wind sailors that are recognized by many beach-goers are the polyp phase of the life cycle. Each “individual” with its sail is really a hydroid colony, with many polyps that feed on ocean plankton.

Snowy plover (Charadrius nivosus) nesting sites are monitored here and temporary informational/warning signs and fences (or ropes) are erected near nest sites during the breeding season. To help in the recovery of the bird, non-native vegetation that threatens the beach habitat has been removed and beach goers are educated to the sensitive nature of the area.

After a couple hours on the beach, we began to get hungry.  Craving fish & chips, we sought out a local eatery and chose Spencer Makenzie’s Fish Company. Their signature item is most definitely the Giant Fish Taco and it was delicious! Geneva ordered the Ceviche – also very good but heavy on the vegetables.  The boys each chose traditional fish & chips which were average.

Spencer MacKenzie's review @WellTraveledFamily.netThey have communal benches along one side of the building outside as well as shady tables out front. We chose to dine inside, however, and came to regret that decision as the sun was beginning to set and there were no shades or blinds on the window.

 

Shore Acres Geology Walk

Shore Acres, located on the south coast of Oregon near Coos Bay, contains some of the most dramatic geology on the West Coast.  Layers of sediment tilt at steep angles, some are spatter with dark round rock formations like cannon balls, and the surf hitting the rocks shoots spectacular waves 50 feet into the air.  Both my husband and I grew up in Coos County and most of our family still resides in this area.  We thereby get the opportunity to visit frequently.

Our Dynamic Coast

Perched on rugged sandstone cliffs high above the ocean, Shore Acres State Park is an exciting and unexpected combination of beautiful natural and constructed features. Once the grand estate of pioneer timber baron Louis Simpson, Shore Acres features lushly planted gardens with plants and flowers from all over the world. Something is in bloom almost every day of the year. We’ve explored these gardens in the past but our focus this time was the geology.

1 Concretions

The rock formations that look like cannon balls are called concretions, compact masses of mineral matter embedded in a host rock.  Concretions usually form before the rest of the sediment has hardened into solid rock. This pre-rock cementing material collects around a nucleus of decaying organic material.

2 Salt Weathering

The power of the ocean is wearing away the rock formations day by day, as the waves strike the rocky coastline and explode into the air.  But an even more subtle force of geologic change comes from the evaporation of billions of droplets of seawater, deposited on the rocks and causing salt weathering.

3 Colliding Plates

The layers of rock that are part of the Coaledo Formation tilt at a 40-45 degree angle from the Juan de Fuca plate colliding with the North American plate.  The flat surface around you is formed by a wave cut pattern called the Whiskey Run Marine Terrace.

As we drove home, I encouraged the kids to give an oral narration of what they understood from the interpretive signs we had read and the observations we had made.  I hoped that they would also make a few sketches in their nature journal but a las they did not.  Nature journaling is personal.  I try to model it as often as I can but I don’t force it.

During our geology walk, we were delighted to also observe a pod of sea lions surfing the waves and racing one another.  At first, I thought they were dolphins for I had never seen sea lions leap and dive before this day. We watched them for several minutes as they continued their journey south, presumably to a secluded beach not far from where we were standing.

 

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Submitted to the Outdoor Hour Challenge at the Handbook of Nature Study.

10 Free California Field Trips

To say we LOVE field trips is an understatement.   I have found that hands on learning and exploring makes topics more interesting and memorable for my children. Sadly, public schools are consistently cutting back on their budgets for field trips and other extracurricular activities. These one of a kind learning experiences are essential for a child’s development and some of my fondest memories from my own schooling. Being able to take field trips is actually one of the many reasons we homeschool.

Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.  ~ Benjamin Franklin

Isn’t tasting freshly pressed olive oil at the site where it was made, listening to a Native American speak about his ancestors and share his knowledge of native plants, touching a plane that was used in WWII, or walking portions of the Cherokee Trail of Tears more exciting than learning about them in a book?

Today, I share with you some of our most memorable California field trips we have enjoyed this past year.

Free California FieldtripsLego Fun – Buddy is big time into LEGOs. When we are home he spends  hours playing with them so of course we had to visit Legoland when we were in Southern California.  While there, we stopped by Lego® Mindstorms® and signed up for a hands-on tutorial. The kids had a blast building and programing a computerized robot.  As a result of this experience, we are contemplating starting our own Lego League this fall.

Lucero Olive Oil – After trying our hand at harvesting our own olives recently, What to Do With Fresh Olives, I wanted to give the kiddos a taste of the agricultural sciences which brought us to Lucero for a taste experience we will not soon forget.

bird watching

Nature Walks  – Our Roots & Shoots friends have joined us on many of these adventures.  Our volunteer guide is very knowledgeable about birds. We look forward to her outings every month.

Lady WashingtonLady Washington & Hawaiian Chieftan – We were fortunate to happen upon these historic ships while in San Francisco one weekend.

Free California Field Trips

I have shared about some of our other field trips here, here, and here … but since I never tire of sharing, here are 10 more FREE California field trips you can enjoy:

  1. California Capitol – always FREE. The State Capitol Museum is open daily and offers free tours hourly; self-guided tours are also available. Reservations are required for large groups or sign up for a guided tour.
  2. Jelly Belly Factory – Learn the secrets to how we create the legendary Jelly Belly jelly bean, and discover why it takes more than a week to make a single bean.
  3. Nature Centers – California has many nature centers that do not charge to walk the trails. Some of these are Oak Canyon Nature Center in Anaheim, San Elijo Lagoon Nature Center, and Turtle Bay Exploration Park.
  4. Historic Ships Dockside Tours – When in port, these historic ships are sure to impress. $3 donation suggested
  5. Bohart Museum of Entomology – Founded in 1946, it is located on the University of California, Davis campus. Dedicated to teaching, research and service the museum boasts the seventh largest insect collection in North America, and is worldwide in coverage.
  6. Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary – Housed in an historic Coast Guard Station, the exhibits highlight the amazing wildlife in the Gulf of the Farallones, the threats to the wildlife, as well as what people can do to help protect the sanctuary. Open to the public Wed – Sun from 10 am – 4 pm
  7. Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden – A living museum, having special collections designed to assist the teaching mission; offers free docent-led tours for groups of 10 or more.
  8. Santa Ana Watershed Association – Offers free environmental education programs taught by Naturalists who specialize in conservation, watershed issues & ecology.
  9. Fish Hatcheries – There are many fish hatcheries in California, including the Coleman Fish Hatchery in Anderson and the Mad River Hatchery in Arcata.
  10. Federal Reserve Bank – The San Francisco Fed offers one of the world’s foremost collections of historic United States currency and a look at cash processing too!  Free tours are available at the Los Angeles Fed as well.

Field Trip Planning Tips

Always check out the websites prior to your desired visit date and try to plan your visit around special programs or events.  Additionally, you’ll often find downloadable guides for kids and suggested activities with which to engage them before/after your visit.

Though the suggested sites listed here may not be in your proximity, you can use this list as a guide to find similiar sites near you.

Thanks for visiting. What has been your most favorite field trip so far this year?

The Mining of Iron Ore at Cornwall: An Unexpected Field Trip

While staying in Rome, we made a day-excursion to Birmingham to meet up with one of my former students (now a nurse at the university hospital). After touring the botanical gardens and doing a little letterboxing, we drove up to see the Vulcan, the largest cast-iron sculpture in the world. Designed by Italian artist Giuseppe Moretti and cast from local iron in 1904, it has overlooked the urban landscape of Alabama’s largest city since the 1930s.

Iron Ore Mining

Here, we also explored the museum where we were able to touch several ores mined locally: iron ore, charcoal or coke (a fuel and reducing agent), and limestone. Below the museum entrance was an entrance to a mining shaft where raw iron ore was extracted. The ore was then transported to nearby furnaces where it was refined and iron ingots were formed for further processing.

Doing a little letterboxing near the Vulcan

Iron Ore Furnaces

Driving through Birmingham, it is impossible to miss the Sloss Furnaces, where iron was produced for nearly 90 years (between 1882 and 1971 under various owners), giving rise to the city of Birmingham.  Though the National Landmark was closed on the day we were there, the web of pipes and tall smokestacks were still impressive and provided us with a glimpse into the great industrial past.

On the drive home, we noticed a brown road sign indicating an historical site.  Choosing to take this little detour, the signs led us to Cornwall Furnace, a quaint little park tucked away alongside Weiss Lake. Though all that remains is the furnace (the wooden mill exterior had deteriorated long ago), it was still impressive, and enabled us to visualize the past.

iron ore furnace at Cornwall

Samuel Noble is thought to have over seen operations here and production started in late 1862.  Iron ore, charcoal, and limestone would have been fed into the top of the furnace to produce the iron. There would have been a charging bridge coming from the top of the ridge to the top of the furnace stack to facilitate the loading of the raw materials.  Iron was then extracted from the bottom of the furnace and ran into sand molds to produce pig iron ingots.  The ingots were marked CORNWALL.

The pig iron ingots were then transported to the foundry in Rome, Georgia.  Once the bars were in Rome, they were transformed into various products that supported the war effort.  We later learned that many of these furnaces (found throughout the south) had been destroyed during the Civil War to prevent the Confederate army from producing more arms.

Buddy was particularly interested in these historical sites as mining has always been a fascination to him.  He even painted a mine shaft during the painting class later in the week.  When we returned home, he continued to inquire about the specifics of mining iron ore and as we researched, he made numerous references to Minecraft.  While making connections to his favorite game, it was clear that he was truly understanding the complexities of the process.

Upon our return home, we explored ore samples in more depth. You can read about our approach in my post,  A Peak at Ore Samples.

Etowah Indian Mounds

We enjoyed many historical sites in Georgia, taking advantage of this opportunity to experience the history we had read about first hand.  Many of the sites we visited were a part of the Georgia State Parks & Historic Sites, enabling the kids to complete an activity book to facilitate their understanding of the cultural and natural history of the area.  Upon completion, they were able to turn in their work to earn one of four Georgia Junior Ranger badges (according to age).  Proudly, despite his age, Buddy chose to work for level three just like his sister.

One of the highlights of the state parks was the Etowah Indian Mounds near Cartersville.  This major Mississippian Period Cultural Center was home to several thousand Native Americans from 1000 to 1500 AD. The largest mound stands over 63 feet high and covers three acres. The impressive archaeological museum interprets life in what is now known as the Etowah Valley Historic District.  Beyond the mounds lies the Etowah River and Pumpkinvine Creek where a V-shaped rock wall impedes the water of the rivers.  At least 500 years old, the wall is one of the lasting reminders of the Mississippian Culture who resided in this portion of Northwest Georgia.

Known colloquially as the mound builders due to the large earthen mounds, flattened on top for homes of the elite, the culture flourished at this site until the arrival of Hernando de Soto, who visited the area in 1540-41.  Those that survived the illnesses brought by the Spanish abandoned the site and eventually blended in with the nearby Creek Indians along with their agricultural skills and past times (lacrosse, for example).

Fortunately, we arrived shortly before a bus load of school kids.  The interpretive volunteer invited us to take part in the talk he would be giving them and we were able to get a sneak peak at some of the weapons and materials (not on display) used by the Native Americans prior to the arrival of Europeans.  We enjoyed this museum very much as it was a very distinct contrast to the way the Native Americans lived on the Pacific Coast.  While only 9% of the site has been excavated, examination of Mound C (pictured in the collage above) and the surrounding artifacts revealed much about the people who had lived here.  One of the things that surprised us, however, was the extent of their trade routes … artifacts include Obsidian from Central Oregon and Idaho as well as asphalt from the La Brea Tar Pits in California.