Season nears for prime gray whale watching

  • By Sharon Wootton Herald Columnist
  • Friday, November 28, 2008 12:31pm
  • Life

Whether by sea, land or air, whale watchers flock to the Washington and Oregon coasts to see the gray whale migration as the grays swim south to warmer waters in Baja California, Mexico.

The whales once attracted whalers. Now they attract tourists.

A recent study found that more than half the whales swim much closer to Oregon’s shore than to Washington’s. Oregon’s whales can be three miles or less from the coastline; whales going by Washington’s coast rarely come that close.

(For a link to an animated graphic of the whales’ migration, go to and enter “whales” in the search field.)

The peak of the migration is early January, but whales can be spotted from mid-December through early February. Following these tips:

Stay outside longer with sensible clothes, including layers and a wind- and rain-proof outer layer.

If you’re on a charter boat, bring a camera or video camera. Be sure to take your motion sickness pill at least an hour before you leave.

Use the whales’ swimming pattern to help locate them. A gray whale does a series of short surface dives, one 3- to 5-minute (can be longer) deeper dive to eat, and then three to five blows on the surface. The blows can be up to 12 feet high. While still looking at the spout, bring your binoculars up to your eyes and focus.

Because of the whales’ proximity to the shoreline, Oregon has gone full steam into the whale-watching attraction. Each year, peak migrations coincidentally happen during our vacations, the Christmas-New Year’s break and spring break.

Thirty years ago, Oregon created a Whale Watching Spoken Here program that evolved into one of the largest whale-watching programs in the world. Each break week, hundreds of trained volunteers answer questions and help spot whales on good whale-watching sites from Ilwaco to Crescent City, Calif.

There are 26 sites. From north to south, here are some of the sites as far as Oregon’s Sea Lion Caves; more are beyond that point.

Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, Ilwaco

Fort Stevens, platform at parking lot C

Ecola State Park

Cape Lookout State Park; 2-mile rugged hike to the tip of Cape Lookout

Cape Kiwanda, Pacific City

Boiler Bay scenic viewpoint

Depoe Bay sea wall

Whale Watching Center, Depoe Bay

Rocky Creek scenic viewpoint

Devil’s Punchbowl (Otter Rock)

Yaquina Head Lighthouse

Don A. Davis kiosk, Newport

Yaquina Bay Recreation site

Seal Rock recreation site

Yachats State Park

Cape Perpetua overlook

Sea Lion Caves turnout

Other good sites in Washington, sans volunteers, are Westport’s observation tower; Cape Alava and Cape Flattery on the north end of the coast; and North Head Lighthouse. In both states, charter boats will take out whale-watchers; in a few areas, it is possible to take an airplane charter.

An articulated immature gray whale skeleton is on the Discovery Trail on the Long Beach Peninsula. There’s a complete whale skeleton at the Westport Maritime Museum.

If you are in Depoe Bay, stop at the whale-watching center for its exhibits, photos, whale videos, and interactive exhibits for children.

The upstairs viewing area looks out over Depoe Bay, one of the best areas to spot whales along the entire coast.

For more information: Oregon Coast Visitors Association, 888-628-2101,; Long Beach Peninsula Visitors Bureau, 800-451-2542,

Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at or 360-468-3964.

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