A Visitors' Guide to Whale Watching on the Oregon Coast
By Beth Wise
Published: 09/27/2019
Depoe Bay is home to the Whale Watching Center and a hot spot for whale watching on the Central Oregon Coast.
Depoe Bay is home to the Whale Watching Center and a hot spot for whale watching on the Central Oregon Coast.  Photo by Beth Wise

You'll have one whopper of a fish story if you take the time to watch for the magnificent Gray Whales passing the Oregon Coast during one of their twice-yearly migrations.

With a "whoosh" that can be heard from a half mile away, a Gray Whale the size of a city bus exhales a spout of mist that lingers in the air over the ocean. Then, the 35-ton creature's back rolls out of the water and with a splash, its enormous tail propels it deep into the Pacific waters. Catching sight of one of these massive mammals is one of the most exciting and memorable scenes on the Oregon Coast.

About Gray Whales

Gray Whales are the most commonly seen of the whales along the Oregon Coast and these fascinating creatures make an epic annual migration along the Pacific Coast each year. Approximately 18,000 Gray Whales travel just offshore on this incredible journey that can total over 12,000 miles round trip, the longest annual migration of any mammal on earth. Adult Gray Whales grow to the size of a city bus, up to 50 feet long and weighing 40 tons. They dive to the ocean's bottom to feed on small shrimp-like amphipods, filtering water and sediments from the ocean's bottom through large baleen plates on either side of their upper jaw. They are a mottled gray color and can be covered in barnacles and other small creatures.

Best Times of Year for Whale Watching

The best times of year to spot Gray Whales are during the peak of their twice-annual migratory passage along the Oregon Coast. In the spring, they make their way north along the Pacific Coast from their warm breeding waters off Mexico to the food rich waters off Alaska. Beginning in March, these gentle giants begin their northward migration and often take their time on the journey, feeding while traveling close to shore. Adult males, juveniles and newly pregnant females are first to move north, while mothers with calves may not begin the trip for a month or two and can occasionally still be seen moving north into the summer. These mother and calf pairs are often easy to spot as they travel slowly and make fewer deep dives.

After spending most of the summer and fall in northern waters, Gray Whales begin to return south to their breeding grounds off Mexico's Baja Peninsula. The southerly migration typically begins in December, led by pregnant females anxious to reach the warm birthing and nursery lagoons off Mexico. Breeding age adults follow and juveniles bring up the rear, though some don't even reach Mexico before the northern migration begins. The winter migration is more of a hurried one that only lasts about a month and the whales tend to stay farther from shore; though during the peak of the migration, an average of 30 whales might be seen hourly.

Where to Go

Elevated locations like coastal capes and headlands that offer expansive views of the ocean are the best whale watching locations, though a moderately sized dune works nicely in the spring when they are closer to shore. Calm days are best for whale watching, as the spout can linger in the air for up to five seconds when there is little wind. Seas without white-capped waves and early sunlight from a low angle that illuminates the lingering spout also make whale spotting easier.

It's also worth noting that Oregon has its share of resident whales. About 200 Gray Whales spend most of the year along the Oregon Coast and about 60 can generally be seen along the Central Oregon Coast year-round with the exception of the breeding season. These resident whales linger mostly between Lincoln City and Newport rather than continuing the full migration north, making the Central Oregon Coast good for spotting whales from mid-March through November. Oregon State Parks operates the Whale Watching Center in Depoe Bay, one of the most dependable places to spot whales during non-migratory times, and there are also plenty of options in the area for whale watching boat excursions.

What to Look For

Rarely will you see more then the whale's spout, its back rolling out of the water and its tail propelling its next dive, though occasionally whale watchers will observe more exciting behaviors including a breach, where a large portion of the whale's body emerges from the water and then returns with a splash. Sometimes just the whale's head will pop out of the ocean for a look around in a behavior known as spy hopping.

With your binoculars at the ready, keep an eye out for a spout. Once you have it spotted, raise your binoculars to where it was and keep looking. Whales typically spout three to five times, about 30 seconds apart, before making a deep dive of up to six minutes long. Keep their direction of travel in mind and you should have it down in no time.

State Parks Staff & Volunteers Can Help

The Whale Watch Center at Depoe Bay and The Lookout at Cape Foulweather are both operated by Oregon State Parks and park staff assist in helping visitors spot whales. During the typical peak weeks of both the southbound and the northbound migration, Oregon State Parks also coordinates a statewide whale watching program. During these two Whale Watch Weeks, trained volunteers are available for a few hours daily at over 20 sites along the coast to offer whale-watching tips and share information about the whales. These events occur during the last week of December and the last week in March.

For more on the Whale Watching Center in Depoe Bay, click here.
For more on the Whale Watching Spoken Here program, click here.

A Visitors' Guide to Whale Watching on the Oregon Coast