DEPOE BAY, Ore. - Whale watchers on the Oregon coast spotted more whales this winter season than in any of the past five, and the massive mammals are still passing by.
Trained whale watchers at 26 sites - 24 in Oregon and one each in California and Washington - reported sighting 672 whales during whale-watching week, Dec. 26 to Jan. 1. That's almost double the sightings in 2005-06, when spotters sighted 378.
Since then, an additional 230 have been spotted at the Oregon Parks and Recreation's Whale Watching Center in Depoe Bay alone.
"How many we get to see is directly related to the weather," said Morris Grover, head of the Whale Watching Center. "There are 19,000-plus whales - about 18,000 grays and 1,100 humpbacks - that go by us every year. On the way down, they are in a hurry. The migration starts the last week of December, and by February, they are supposed to be in the Baja. So, physically, 30 whales an hour have to go by."
A U.S. Coast Guard flyover earlier in the migration spotted thousands of whales six to eight miles offshore, Grover said. "There are just so many whales going by, it is just stunning."
The big rush to move south comes as the mother whales prepare to give birth after a one-year pregnancy. The pregnant females lead the way.
The babies, which can be up to 15 feet long and weigh in at 1 ton, may be massive but are born without blubber and are defenseless against the cold. Born in northern waters, they would die of hypothermia.
Once the babies are born, the mothers fatten them up on milk and get them ready for the return to Alaskawaters.
"The mother's warm milk nourishes them," Grover said. "It's 55 percent butter fat. It makes our shakes look like diet drinks. They also put them in the mouth of the bay and make them swim against the current to build muscle."
By the end of February, they are ready to begin the 6,000-mile trip north to where food is abundant. Then, the migration is led by newly impregnated females, which are now eating for two.
By now, the migrating whales may be harder to spot. But the best whale-spotting days are those when the weather is good and seas are calm. Sunny days are best, but overcast is OK, too, Grover said. But if you miss them, the whales will pass through again in late March closer to shore.
"When the whales travel, they keep track of things by sound," Grover said. "They listen for the surf. It tells them they are too close to the shore. In the winter, the surf is so heavy they move farther away. In the spring, the surf is calmer and they are closer to shore."