Twice a year, about 20,000 gray whales migrate along the Oregon coast as they move from feeding grounds in Alaska to breeding grounds in Baja California, Mexico, and then back in Alaska. The distance traveled is about 1,300 miles, which is the greatest migration of any animal. The best viewing times are winter (mid-December to January) and late March to June, when the gray whales return north with their calves. Due to the large number of migrating gray whales, this article will focus on gray whales. Here are my seven tips for spotting gray whales along the Oregon Coast.
1. Watch for gray whales (Grey Whale 101)
The most common whales seen along the Oregon coast are gray whales.
Females are about 45 feet tall (about the size of a school bus) and weigh about 8,000 pounds. Their two eyes are each the size of an orange with a layer of mucus to protect them from salt water. Two vents above their heads exhale all the carbon dioxide from their lungs. Gray whales have two lungs, each larger than a household refrigerator.
Gray whales have two pectoral fins used for navigating and moving. The bones of the pectoral fins resemble the bones of our hands. There’s a dorsal hump — gray whales don’t have a dorsal fin. This is the best way to identify a gray whale. The bumps on their tail are called knuckles or ridges.
Their tail, called a fluke, is about 10 feet long. The fluke is the main propulsion device. Gray whales are bottom feeders. Instead of teeth, they have rows and rows of baleen on their upper jaws, which they use to scoop up feeling from the ocean floor for plankton and other small creatures. This scooping behavior is unique to gray whales; other whales filter the water for nutrients. They turn on their right side for this behavior – which is why they don’t have many barnacles on the right side of their face.
Gray whales can be spotted from shore anywhere along the 362-mile-long Oregon Coast.
Watch for these four behaviors of gray whales:
The blow or the beak
Gray whales can surface every 20 seconds or every three to five minutes while feeding. The blow rises about 12 feet in the air, expelling about 400 liters of air. So first, with the naked eye, watch the shot. Once you locate the hit, turn to your binoculars or telephoto lens to detect further behavior.
Breaching is the behavior of the gray whale launching itself out of the water. Scientists don’t know why whales exhibit this behavior, but it’s exciting to watch.
spyhop is the term given to whales when they stick their heads out of the water and then fall sideways, causing a giant splash. Scientists believe there are two reasons for this behavior: seeing what is happening and hearing better.
Diving is also called survey Where punch. Here, the gray whale lifts its tail out of the water to propel itself to the ocean floor, where it feeds on tiny plankton.
2. Why Choose the Oregon Coast
There are two main reasons to choose the Oregon Coast for your whale watching adventure. First, thanks to the Beach Bill of 1967, public access to the entire 362-mile-long Oregon Coast was assured, and the area is often referred to as “the People’s Coast.” So you have a vast coastline to experience this fascinating migration.
The second reason to choose the Oregon Coast for your whale watching is the Whale Watching Spoken Here program, sponsored by Oregon State Parks. Twice a year volunteers are assigned to the 26 best whale watching sites along the Oregon Coast. One week is during the south migration and the second week is during the north migration. Typically, these dates are the week between Christmas and New Years and one week at the end of March. Check the link above for up-to-date information.
A third week has recently been added to the whale watching program: from the last week of August to the first Monday of September. Meanwhile, the focus is on resident whales around Lincoln City and Newport – a distance of less than 25 miles. Resident whales seem particularly fond of feeding on the tiny shrimp off the reefs of Depoe Bay and are often spotted less than half a mile from shore.
3. Best times to watch gray whales
As mentioned, the two peak viewing times are mid-December through January and late March through June. During the southward winter migration, one can typically spot 25-30 whales per hour; however, they are usually about five miles offshore. Spring migration is much more leisurely and takes place over three and a half months. During this time, usually about six whales are spotted per hour, but they are only about half a mile from shore.
Calmer ocean days are best for whale watching. Morning is also a good time as the sun is at your back making it easy to spot whale behaviors.
4. Where to go
Here are my favorite sites for whale watching.
Depoe Bay Whale Watching Center
Without a doubt, Depoe Bay Whale Watching Center is my favorite whale watching center on the entire Oregon Coast. The area is often called the whale watching capital of the Oregon Coast, and for good reason. Open year-round, volunteers greet visitors and provide interesting facts about migrating and resident whales. The center has telescopes to help you find whales. For wheelchair travelers, check out Watch Whales Live Cam and track migrations from the comfort of your own home.
The Whale Watching Center is located next to the smallest navigable harbor in the world, Depoe Bay. The center is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Cape Lookout State Park
Cape Lookout State Park, located about eight miles from Tillamook, is one of Oregon’s largest state parks and is known to be a prime spot for whale watching. The facilities are exceptional. This is also a Whale Spoken Here site.
Cape Lookout Beach is protected by a 50 foot sloping structure of cobbled rocks to protect the shoreline from erosion. In order to reach the beach, you have to cross this structure, called revetment. Thus, the beach is not universally accessible; however, there are paved pathways to view the ocean from small cliffs.
There are daily parking fees. Check out this link for more information on day passes and annual passes for Oregon State Parks.
Cape Meares State Scenic Viewpoint
Another of Oregon’s top whale watching sites, Cape Meares State Scenic Viewpoint, is located 15 miles north of Cape Lookout. In addition to key viewpoints, interpretive panels contain excellent information. There’s also an 1890s lighthouse and one of the continent’s largest common guillemot colonies and nesting sites.
There are picnic sites and restrooms. Some of the trails are quite steep and may be difficult for some.
Otter Crest State Scenic Lookout and Devil’s Punch Bowl
Otter Crest State Scenic Viewpoint and Devil’s Punch Bowl are located just south of Depoe Bay. To get there, take the Otter Crest Loop off Highway 101. Turn right on Otter Street.
The scenic views here are incredible as you are 400-500 feet above the Pacific Ocean. On this site, you really need your binoculars.
There is a small car park and security fencing. It can be very windy here. Both sites are located on the southern tip of Cape Foulweather, aptly named as there can be strong winter winds. Dress according to the weather.
5. Where to stay
There’s no shortage of accommodations along the Oregon Coast – whether you’re looking for hotels, motels, budget rooms or luxury suites, there’s something for everyone.
If you’re looking for campgrounds, here are two I recommend: My first recommendation is Cape Lookout State Park. There are 13 yurts, six luxury cabins, 170 tent sites, 38 full hookups and plenty of picnic sites. Six of the yurts and three of the cabins are universally accessible.
If you’re looking to camp closer to Oregon’s central coast, try South Bend State Park. Located just south of Yaquina Bay in Newport, the park includes 227 sites with full power and water hookups, 60 tent sites, and 27 yurts. Nearby are two of Oregon’s top educational institutions: Hatfield Marine Science Center and the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Take the time to visit.
6. What to bring
Bring your binoculars, a camera with a telephoto lens, warm clothes, rain gear and non-slip closed shoes.
7. How to safely monitor gray whales
The best whale watching areas are those located above the Pacific Ocean. On such cliffs, remember to respect the palisades or barriers. Never climb or go over fences.
If there are no fences or railings, stay away from the cliff edges. They can be unstable and very slippery.
Also keep in mind that Oregon winters along the coast can be very windy. At sites such as Cape Foulweather, winter winds can be 90 to 100 miles per hour. Plan accordingly.
I prefer whale watching from the shore. There are also commercial companies that offer whale watching cruises and flights. For more information and phone numbers, see this link.
Thousands of gray whales migrate along the Oregon coast. What a sight they are to see! There are plenty of places to watch them along the huge Oregon Coast. Visit some of my favorite places to catch this wonderful show! And for more inspiration from Oregon, consider: