P.O. Box 1010, Depoe Bay, Oregon 97341   (541) 765-3000 

Whale Watching in Depoe Bay

Marine mammals -- especially whales -- are a popular cause with the American public. Even without scientific training, you can contribute to what science is learning about whales. One way to do so is to build accurate and systematic habits of observing, identifying, recording, and reporting your whale sightings. Here are tips on how to do it.

When and Where

  1. Observe from coastal headlands that jut out into the ocean -- especially those with good elevation.
  2. Pick early morning hours. Conditions are usually more favorable before winds cause whitecaps on the water's surface.
  3. Choose weather favorlng a calm ocean. Don't go during or just after a heavy storm. Overcast days are good for whale watching because there is little glare.

What to Look For

  1. Scan the horizon and look for the blow-vapor, water, or condensation blown into the air up to 12 feet when the whale exhales. (Backlighting by the afternoon sun can sometimes be helpful in spotting the blow initially.)
  2. Once you locate a blow, stay with it. Where you see one blow, you will see others, either from other whales or a single whale. Getting the range (distance) to whales is a frequent problem; but, once established, you can focus your attention on this area.
  3. Whales have periodic blow patterns during their migration. Usually an individual will make up to a half dozen short, shallow dives before a more prolonged dive of up to 9 to 10 minutes (more generally 3 to 5 minutes). Frequently the short dives leave turbulent eddies along the surface, so you can track the whale's progress and set up a camera or spotting scope to anticipate the next blow.
  4. Usually, only a small portion of the whale's head and back show during a blow. Whales can be distinguished from each other by observing the position and/or shape of the dorsal fin, blow, head, back ridges, and tail. If the tail flukes are raised high, the dive will be a deep one (the whale is sounding); in shallow water, the animal may keep the flukes aloft for several minutes while headstanding.
  5. Spy-hopping is a term applied to a whale with it head partially out of the water in a vertical posture, frequently bringing the eye above the surface. This is thought to be a visual-orientation behavior and may be done near boats to see, "What's that?"
  6. Breaching is a term for the whale's rising vertically out of the water (often one-half to three-fourths of its length) and falling to its side or back, making a spectacular splash when it hits the water.

Gray Whales

The seasonal appearance of gray whales along the Oregon coast attracts knowledgeable residents to rocky headlands, to watch there large mammals on their yearly journey from the Bering Sea and Arctic waters to the lagoons of Mexico. Generally, whale watchers can see them from December through May.

Migrating south from Arctic waters in November, gray whales pass along the Pacific Northwest coast, quite close to shore, on their way to lagoons along the central and southern Pacific coastline of Baja California, Mexico. Here they breed and give birth to their young.

The 6,000-mile migration -- 12,000-mile round trip -- is the longest known for any mammal. While other whales are known to migrate between summer polar feeding grounds and the more tropical breeding and calving areas, researchers know more about the gray whale because it moves so close to shore.

This behavior has led to speculation that gray whales are not good navigators and prefer to follow a shallow-water route to prevent getting lost.

The gray whale gets its name from its blotchy pattern of coloration, caused by barnacles growing in the skin and by scar tissue where barnacles have been.

The southward migration lasts until early February, with most of the animals moving by in 4 to 6 weeks. They travel at about 5 miles an hour southbound and about half that speed northbound. The northward migration is much more spread out; the immature animals (some of which may not have gone all the way to Mexico), adult males, and females without calves are the first to head north. Later, females with calves move north at a somewhat slower rate and usually finish passing the Oregon and Washington coasts by early May.

During the northward migration, it is not unusual to see mating activity between a female and one or more males. This generally involves two or three adults apparently rolling in the water.

Source: Bruce R. Mare, OSU Extention Dept. Oceanographer

Links to Other Whale Watching Web Sites

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