Winter Whale-Watching on the Coast
Seeing one of the planet’s largest mammals – even from a distance – ranks among the most memorable and awe-inspiring experiences you can have on the Oregon Coast – or anywhere, for that matter.
Early winter is a peak time for whale watching, as pods of gray whales migrate south after spending the summer feeding in the seas around Alaska. Nearly 20,000 whales pass through Oregon waters, making the 12,000-mile journey to breeding and calving grounds in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico. The highest traffic is typically between Christmas and New Year’s Day, when whale-watching stations along the Coast report seeing as many as 50 whales a day.
The most commonly seen whale along the Oregon Coast is the gray whale, a baleen whale that grows up to 50 feet in length and can weigh as much as 40 tons. Their mottled backs are lined with a series of crusty knuckles covered with barnacles. Gray whales feed on crustaceans from the ocean floor, rolling on their sides and scooping up sediment that they then force out through the baleen plates on either side of their upper jaw. More than other species, gray whales swim close to the shore — usually moving within a few miles of the beach as they make their way south. Their feeding movements, coupled with a distinctive breathing pattern, make the gray whale relatively easy to spot.
Several other species are less commonly seen, but you might get lucky. These include the minke whale (one of the smallest baleen whales) and blue whales, which are occasionally spotted, but usually no closer than 10 miles offshore. Humpback whales are usually five to 15 miles offshore, so they are normally only seen by commercial fishing boats. Orcas and porpoises can occasionally be seen off the Coast during the spring.
To spot a whale, scan the horizon with your naked eye, looking for spouts. Each species of whale has a distinct blow or spout, which is a column of mist that condenses as the whale exhales. A gray whale’s blow is up to 15 feet high and visible for about five seconds on a calm day. Once you’ve spied a spout, focus more closely with binoculars. Be patient, and these gentle giants may amaze you.
Where to Whale Watch
Bluffs and overlooks provide the best vantage points for whale watching. And between Christmas and New Year’s Day (and again during Spring Break) hundreds of trained volunteers staff stations along the Coast to help spot whales and answer your questions. Look for “Whale Watching Spoken Here” signs at 26 spots along the Oregon Coast, including several of the ones listed below. If you seek a closer view, try whale watching from a charter boat.
Ecola State Park – This is a great place for a solitary whale watching experience. Walk the meandering Tillamook Head Trail through mountain forests and over a high promontory for views of the Pacific Ocean and the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse. Gray whales can often be spotted from the lofty vantage points along the trail.
Cape Meares State Park – Another quiet spot for watching the southbound migration is the area around the Cape Meares Lighthouse. It sits on a bluff overlooking the ocean from a vantage point of 217 feet above the surf.
Inn at Spanish Head – Head to the 10th floor lobby, which is also an outpost for the Whale Watching Spoken Here program, and enjoy a hot toddy while you keep your eye on the sea.
Boiler Bay State Scenic Viewpoint – This is one of the best spots for seeing resident whales, a group of about 40 whales that make a year-round home between Lincoln City and Newport.
Depoe Bay – Dubbed the “Whale Watching Capital of the Oregon Coast,” Depoe Bay is a great place to spy resident whales as well as migrating pods that linger to feed from the kelp beds below the town’s sea wall. The Whale Watching Center has telescopes and rangers who help point out whales and answer questions. Educational displays explore whale biology and habits, and hands-on exhibits feature whale vertebrae, fossils and baleen. For a closer encounter with whales, head to the marina and join a whale-watching excursion.
Umpqua River Whale Watching Station – Watch the migration from this viewing platform, which features coin-operated viewers and educational signage. The station is staffed with Whale Watching Spoken Here volunteers who help you spot whales.
Photo of Cape Meares State Park by Justin Bailie