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December whale watching tradition resumes at the Oregon Coast

It's been a few years, but Whale Watch Week is returning to the Oregon Coast in person.
Courtesy of Oregon State Parks
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It's been a few years, but Whale Watch Week is returning to the Oregon Coast in person.

A decades-long whale watching tradition is returning to the Oregon Coast — in person — from Dec. 28 to New Year’s Day.

Roughly 19,000 gray whales swim past Oregon this time of year on their annual migration from Alaskan feeding grounds to warm calving lagoons near Baja, Mexico. And every year, Oregon State Parks has hosted coastal viewing stations to help people spot the marine mammals on their journey.

That is, until the pandemic hit.

Now, Whale Watch Week returns to the Oregon Coast in person for the first time since 2019. Volunteers will staff viewing stations stretching from Astoria to Brookings.

Gray whales swim about 3 to 5 miles offshore on their southern-bound trip, according to park ranger Peter McBride. So, visitors should bring binoculars and look for their spouts, which can shoot between 6 and 12 feet high.

“During this time of year, you could have up to 30 whales per hour going by. So sometimes there will be spouts that will be spread out all along the horizon line,” McBride said.

Other times, there may be gaps in the whale traffic or stormy conditions that make it hard to see.

“There’s a lot of waiting in whale watching,” McBride warned.

Some gray whales travel more than 12,000 miles round-trip on their extraordinary migration. The parks department tried to capture the magic virtually in 2020, livestreaming the waves to homebound whale lovers.

“Maybe we’ll get lucky. Hang in there everybody,” narrated park ranger Luke Parsons in one four-hour stream on the Oregon State Parks YouTube channel in May 2020. He amiably answered live chat questions from viewers while scanning the waters for a tell-tale blow.

This year, trained volunteers should staff more than a dozen viewing sites from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. daily.

And if you miss the winter migration, don’t worry. The whales will journey back north in the spring — this time with their calves and closer to shore.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Kate Davidson