Category: General Article
GPS Coordinates to Cape Perpetua Visitor’s Center: 44.280409, -124.107832
Reporting: Macy Dexter, Arii Geampa and Russell Stone, Oceanscape Network Youth Correspondents
For Oregonians, getting the chance to see whales is as simple as driving to the coast. Twice a year, once in the spring and again in the fall, gray whales migrate along the Oregon coast en route from the Bering Sea and the Chukchi Sea to Baja California then back again. This is one of the longest animal migrations in the world, with a round trip distance of approximately 14,000 miles (22,000 km). Along the way, these giant cetaceans will breed with females usually giving birth in the warmer waters off the Baja peninsula. On the return trip north, the whales are often seen very close to shore as the young whales swim with their mothers.
According to Luke Parsons, an interpretive ranger with the Oregon State Park’s Whale Watching Spoken Here program, this migration pattern was first discovered by scientists in the late 1970s. As a result, thousands of people now flock to the coast annually to catch a glimpse of a spout, a fluke, or if they’re really lucky, a whale breaching out of the waves. The Whale Watching Spoken Here program was created to help visitors better understand the whale’s natural history and life cycle, as well as gather important scientific data.
“Over time, the program’s expanded,” Luke told our youth correspondents. “We now have 24 sites where volunteers come each year to help us count whales.”
Ayslinn Buchholz, 16, has been volunteering with the program for the past three years with her mother. “Counting the whales is very important,” she noted. “The gray whale almost went extinct twice, but this population is now the healthiest it’s been at 18,000 whales. By counting the whales every year, researchers know whether or not those numbers are going up or down and whether the whale’s in trouble again.”
In fact, the recovery of the gray whales is one of the best marine mammal conservation success stories. Thanks largely to international agreements protecting the species, which included a complete ban on hunting them in the territorial waters of Canada, the United States and Mexico, the gray whales’ “eastern Pacific population” is the largest in the world. The animal has not faired as well in other parts of the ocean, however. It was hunted to extinction by whalers in the Atlantic Ocean in the early 1700s. Today, due to continued hunting by the Japanese, the current population of the western whales is around 100 individuals and it is considered critically endangered.
It remains unclear how global environmental issues, such as climate change and plastic pollution, will affect the whales in the future, but for now the eastern population appears stable and can give visitors a wonderful educational experience.
Luke offered some advice on how to spot “grays” during their migration: “First, just kind of scan along the ocean slowly. You have to be patient because these whales move rather slowly. Once you do see a spout, it’s a good idea if you have binoculars. If you lift those up to your eyes you can get a closer look. Through the binoculars you’ll usually see their tails, or if you’re really lucky you can see one of these whales breach out of the water.”
Ayslinn added, “Teaching others about whales is extremely important. Efforts like this program have allowed people to walk in not knowing anything about whale conservation, and when they leave they have a new appreciation for whales and how to help protect them.”
Additional information on spotting whales can be found by downloading the Oceanscape Network field guide, Let’s Speak Orca: Common Whale Behaviors You Can See at the Surface of the Water.