The best time to see whales on the coast? It's right now

OREGON COAST - Around 18,000 gray whales will be migrating up the Oregon coast and now is the best time to spot them during their journey north.

Spring Whale Watch Week - a chance to see the whales as they head from their breeding grounds on Mexico's Baja coast to their summer feeding grounds in the Bering and Chuckchi seas - starts Saturday.

Volunteer spotters will be stationed at one of 24 Whale Watching Spoken Here sites along the coast - and you can join them.

One of those volunteers is 13-year-old Monica Szczepanski, who has been helping folks spot whales on the coast since she was 8 years old.

"I think it's cool seeing how many people come of all ages - just seeing their interest in the whales," she told us. "I think it's awesome."

"She just loves it," her mother, Guin Szczepanski, said. Her dream job is to work at Sea World with the whales."

"Our whole family loves the coast," Guin added. "And it's a great excuse to take off for the day and spend the day looking for whales and meeting new people."

And their advice for first-timers?

"Just keep your eyes open," Monica said.

"Look far out - look on the horizon," Guin said. "Be in a high area. The higher up you are, the easier it is to see them. If it's real windy and lots of white caps, it's real difficult."

"We see them sometimes within a half mile during the spring," said Ziggy Szczepanski, Monica's father. "And if you're very fortunate, you'll get to see a fluke, which is when the tail fin comes up before it goes down for a deep dive. And sometimes even a breach, where they just come out of the water, flip around and go back in."

You'll also want to keep an eye out for a pod of around 85 killer whales that are traveling along the Oregon and Washington coast.

The Northwest Fisheries Science Center has been tracking their movements and at last check, the pod was hanging out in Astoria Canyon, just off the mouth of the Columbia River. Researchers believe the killer whales are feeding on some of the Spring Chinook salmon that are there.

So will you actually be able to see the killer whales? Perhaps - the pod is generally about five miles off the coast and is known to travel closer to shore at times.

"Sometimes they're very close to the coast," said Dr. Brad Hanson with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center. "We've had photos of them taken at Cape Disappointment, for instance, and boats have encountered them off of Newport."

A tag on the dorsal fin of one of the killer whales that are being tracked along the coast, March 2012 (photo courtesy Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans / NOAA).

One thing you might be wondering about is whether the killer whale pod is a threat to the gray whales.

According to Hanson, this particular pod does not pose a danger. That's because the pod is made up of resident killer whales, which are known as the 'salmon specialists.' They are more interested in Chinook salmon than anything else.

He said if this was a pod of transient killer whales, then it would be a different story because they are the marine mammal eaters. The transients will prey on gray whales - mostly the calves - and other marine mammals like sea lions and porpoises.

A third type of killer whale is the off-shore group. They are thought to be the 'shark specialists,' although they do eat a wide variety of things. They spend most of their time off the continental shelf.

The killer whales that are being tracked are endangered and researchers have been following their movements to collect data that can aid in their recovery. They are learning what the whales are eating, they've been able to run DNA tests from fecal samples and they've been able to track the pod's winter activity.

"It's been an amazing amount of information in a short period of time," Hanson said.


You'll need to bring some binoculars because the whales are normally about one to three miles off shore, although you might get lucky and spot one of the few that sometimes come in closer.

Of course, a clear day and calm seas make for the best whale watching conditions. If you go, here are the behaviors to watch for:

The Blow
Gray whales usually surface every 45 seconds as they swim, but will often stay under for three to five minutes when they are eating. If they have been down for five minutes they usually blow five times when they surface to replenish their oxygen supply.

The Breach
This is when a whale launches as much as 3/4 of its body out of the water in a spectacular show of power and grace. Scientists aren't sure why whales breach. It could be a way to remove parasites, communicate with each other or perhaps just for fun.

The Dive
A deep dive, also known as sounding or fluking, happens when a whale lifts its tail flukes out of the water. They do this so they can propel at a steep angle to the bottom, where they feed on small crustaceans. After the flukes disappear under the water, the turbulence of the dive will cause a circle of smooth water, known as a fluke-print.

The Spyhop
Whales are very intelligent and curious and can often be seen 'spyhopping,' or lifting their heads above the surface of the water. They like to rise out of the water to get a better sense of their surroundings. Resident gray whales have been known to spyhop regularly, especially when local tour boats are near.


Baleen (photo courtesy Wikipedia).

Gray whales don't have teeth - they have what's called baleen plates. They take great mouthfuls of food-laden water and then use their tongues to squeeze out the water. They then swallow the food that is stuck to the baleen.

Gray whale babies are 15 feet long and weigh 2,000 pounds at birth. They grow up to 45 feet long and will eventually weigh around 70,000 pounds.

The gray whale's blow or spout shoots nearly 12 feet high and expels 400 liters of air in a single blast.

Gray whales seldom eat during their migration, although about 200 of them will stay along the Oregon coast to feed while the rest continue north.