How, When and Where to Spot Whales on the Oregon Coast
By Beth Wise
Published: 03/03/2015  Updated: 12/06/2018
Gray Whales are amazing and enormous creatures with adults growing to the size of a bus, up to 50 feet long and 40 tons. These magnificent creatures undertake a remarkable annual migration covering as much as 12,000 miles, the longest migration of any mammal on earth. Gray Whales are commonly sighted during the twice-annual migrations along the Oregon Coast and they are often seen nearly year-round along some portions of the coast.
Gray Whales are amazing and enormous creatures with adults growing to the size of a bus, up to 50 feet long and 40 tons. These magnificent creatures undertake a remarkable annual migration covering as much as 12,000 miles, the longest migration of any mammal on earth. Gray Whales are commonly sighted during the twice-annual migrations along the Oregon Coast and they are often seen nearly year-round along some portions of the coast.  Photo courtesy of NOAA

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. 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. It's a remarkable sight to witness, but a common one when you know when and how to spot these magnificent animals.

The best time to spot Gray Whales is 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 as they travel. During this time of year, the whales stay closer to shore, making it easier to spot them. 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 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. Southern-bound whale sightings taper off into January.

During the typical peak weeks of both the southbound and the northbound migration, Oregon State Parks coordinates a statewide whale watching program. Trained volunteers are available at 24 sites along the coast from 10am-1pm each day of the whale watch weeks. The Whale Watching Spoken Here events occur during the last week of December and the last week in March.

It's also worth noting that Oregon has its share of resident whales. Of the 200 or so that can at least be called part-time 'Oregonians,' about 60 can generally be seen along the Central Oregon Coast much of the year. 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.

These amazing creatures are incredibly large, already measuring 15 feet long as newborns. With an adult size relative to that of a bus, they can grow up to 50 feet long and can weigh 40 tons. A type of baleen whale, they feed by 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.

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.

Top Tips for Spotting Whales

Elevated locations like coastal capes and headlands that offer expansive views of the ocean are the best whale watching locations. Whales are spotted when they rise to the surface and spout a plume of mist and vapor that can reach up to 15 feet in the air. 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.

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 15-30 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.

For more on the Whale Watching Center and Whale Watching Spoken Here program, click here.
How, When and Where to Spot Whales on the Oregon Coast