Coast Tip: Whale Trails

There are creatures in this world that tend to give people a sense of place, ease, meaning, and inspiration. Quite often these creatures are rather large. Ever heard the term charismatic megafauna before? Yep, academics have come up with some sweet jargon to describe this very phenomenon.

Two more words for you: Eshrichtius robustus. Aka, the scientific name for the gray whale. Gray whales get to don such cool Latin words because they truly are robust— when fully grown they can reach 50 feet and 80,000 pounds. According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, there are approximately 200 gray whales that reside on our coastline most of the year, and 18,000 additions that visit while in transit between their winter breeding grounds in Baja California and summer feeding in Alaska. 

The southern migration peaks in Oregon smack-dab between Christmas and New Years. However, the coast is rugged this time of year, making viewing challenging. Thus, the time is now to view gray whales. While the northern migration is said to end in July, I’ve reliably found these beloveds at particular viewpoints, right off the 101, no matter the month.

From Corvallis, head north of Depoe Bay to begin your search. Stop at Boiler Bay State Scenic Viewpoint, a pullout on Government Point. On the north end of the park is a cove. You should be able to make out some kelp floating in the water, and this is key. Gray whales are baleen whales, meaning that instead of using teeth to munch on their prey of choice, they filter feed. 

Their prey of choice you may wonder? Mysid shrimp. Where might these mysid shrimp like to hang? Near the kelp of course. 

Scan both the water below and on the horizon for a plume of white in the air; the spout. Gray whale spouts can be 15 feet high, but are visible for just a handful of seconds, especially if it’s windy out, so consider bringing binoculars. Once you’ve located a spout, look for the dark gray ‘knuckles’ of the whales’ back as they position to dive. After 3-5 short dives with spouts and knuckles galore, keep vigilant for their fluke as the whale dives deeper to feed, staying underwater for about six minutes before starting the pattern again.

If Boiler Bay doesn’t do it, head back south to Depoe Bay. The Whale Watching Center here is dedicated to facilitating your task at hand. Stop inside for guidance, then prowl the promenade, which is the most accessible viewpoint on my list.

Continue south for a ka-jillion other stops to try. Rocky Creek State Scenic Viewpoint is also a pullout, and at Otter Crest State Scenic Viewpoint, atop Cape Foulweather, there will be more folks to aid you. This latter stop is on the Otter Crest Loop, which ends at Devil’s Punchbowl State Natural Area, another good place to gander.

Haven’t gotten enough yet? Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area is another option. You have to pay a couple bucks to Uncle Sam here, so if you aren’t into that pass it for more of Oregon’s freebies. Next one south would be the Yaquina Bay State Recreation Site. From the viewpoint here, look in the water south of the jetties for some spout action. 

Wow, what a day you’ve had! I hope you saw some whales, and now feel more inspired, filled with meaning, at ease, and with a sense of place you did not have before traveling along the whale trail. 


By Ari Blatt