Watching for whales

Luke Parsons is a park ranger with the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department who oversees the Whale Watching Center in Depoe Bay. He is pictured with Rachael Tupica, of Salem, who came to the coast on Friday, March 29, to see the migrating gray whales. (Photo by Steve Card)

The weather was good and the whales were plentiful for the annual Spring Whale Watch Week along the Oregon coast.

This event, timed to coincide each year with Oregon’s spring break, actually went longer than just a week. It began on Saturday, March 23, and continued through Sunday, March 31.

“Nine days this year. It’s been a long one, it’s a good push, (and) we’ve had a really good week,” said Luke Parsons, the park ranger with the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department who oversees the Whale Watching Center in Depoe Bay.

Parsons also coordinates the volunteers who staff 24 whale watching stations along the coast from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on each day of Whale Watch Week. This year, those volunteers numbered around 320, and they provided a variety of information about the whales while helping coastal visitors spot the migrating mammals.

Parsons said the preliminary reports showed that volunteers this year helped more than 29,000 people see whales. These included more than 1,800 gray whales, along with a few humpbacks and orcas.

“That’s averaging about 200 per day,” said Parsons. “We have seen a lot of whales about one mile away, but almost every day we’ve had a handful of whales come in less than half a mile away, so that’s given us a good opportunity to see them really, really close. And we’ve seen two breaches this week from here. We were lucky, we got both of those on the camera for people to see.”

At the Whale Watching Center in Depoe Bay, Parsons operates a camera that he zooms in on a whale whenever one is spotted, and the image from the camera can be viewed on a large monitor. This helps anyone who may not have seen the whale through the window know where to look. And whenever a whale is spotted, excitement erupts from those scanning the horizon.

“We hear the range of emotions,” said Parsons. “Some people just can’t believe it. A lot of people just become very happy and excited, some people will cry, kind of overwhelmed with emotions.” He added, “It only takes a second, and then everybody is very excited. It’s kind of like fishing, you wait and then it gets very exciting very quick.”

Video from Parsons’ camera is shared online for anyone to view. “It is being saved on YouTube every day, and eventually I’ll go through and kind of mark the different cool things that happen so people can just click right to them,” he said.

The spring and winter Whale Watch Weeks have a long history. In 1978, Don Giles, of the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, headed out to the Yaquina Head Lighthouse with his binoculars and a great idea. Colleagues Bruce Mate and Denise Herzing were counting gray whales migrating past Yaquina Head. They confirmed what Giles and others intuitively knew: gray whale migrations along the Oregon coast peak during two times of the year. The southbound migration happens during the winter holiday season, and the northbound has one of its two peaks near the end of March. This knowledge motivated Giles to create the Whale Watching Spoken Here program.

“Since then it’s just grown and grown and grown,” Parsons said, “and it’s become the most organized and largest volunteer-based whale watching effort on the West Coast.”

There are some volunteers who have been helping people spot whales since the program first began. “There are volunteers who have been with us for 39 years, so the length of the program,” said Parsons. “There’s lots of very passionate people here on the coast who love doing this kind of work.” And not all of these volunteers live on the coast, or even in Oregon. “We have volunteers this year from Massachusetts, Montana, Illinois, New Mexico, and in the past, we’re even had international volunteers come join us,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing.”

One volunteer, Laura Shattuck, was stationed by the whale sculpture next to the seawall in Depoe Bay. She began volunteering while living in Portland and continues to do so after moving to Depoe Bay. She said she enjoys helping visitors spot the whales, “to talk to these people and to tell them what these guys (whales) look like and what they do every year,” Shattuck said on Friday morning. Some people visiting have never seen a whale before. “Yesterday, we had a whale right front and center, and the kids were really into it,” she said.

Each year, state parks coordinates three volunteer trainings along the coast. First-time whale watch volunteers are required to attend one of the training sessions, “and once you’ve gone through it, every few years you can come back and do a refresher,” said Parsons. Anyone wanting to learn more about this volunteer opportunity can find information online at whalespoken.org, and they can also sign up to become a volunteer through the website.

The winter and spring Whale Watch Weeks aren’t the only opportunities to see whales along the coast. There are many “resident” whales that can be seen most any time. And the Whale Watching Center is open year-round, providing an excellent vantage point for spotting them. The center is currently open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday. From Memorial Day through Labor Day, the center is open seven days a week during those same hours. It is located next to the seawall just north of the Depoe Bay Bridge.


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