Gray whale breach

A Gray whale breaching offshore from Depoe Bay

Think your New Year’s resolution is challenging? About 20,000 Gray whales might have you beat.

Soon, these leviathans will embark on a diet-and-exercise routine that involves swimming about 12,000 miles, fasting for several months, losing up to 20,000 pounds, mating and giving birth.

“We call it the Ultimate New Year’s Resolution Diet,” said Luke Parsons, a ranger with the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.

It’s also called the mammal’s annual migration from their feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi seas near Alaska to their breeding grounds in Baja California, Mexico — and back. You can catch these Gray goliaths in action as they travel south along the Oregon shoreline during Winter Whale Watch Week from Thursday, Dec. 27, through Monday, Dec. 31.

Throughout the week, about 300 trained volunteers from the Whale Watching Spoken Here program will be at 24 observation stations stretching from Ilwaco, Washington, to Brookings, Oregon. From 10 am to 1 pm each day, these knowledgeable volunteers will help spectators spot and learn about the mammoth sea creatures as they blow, breach and dive along the Pacific Northwest coastline.

Parsons said about 30 whales per hour swim by any given location on the Oregon Coast during the peak of their southbound migration, on their way to give birth to their calves in the temperate Baja waters. The trip south takes about eight weeks, with the whales travelling at a steady pace of four miles per hour about five miles offshore.

Established in 1978, the Whale Watching Spoken Here program is headquartered in the OPRD’s Whale Watching Center in Depoe Bay. Each year, it helps thousands of visitors worldwide witness the wonders of the Gray whale migration, assisting roughly one million spectators throughout the past 40 years.

Salem resident Era Horton has been a Whale Watching Spoken Here volunteer for the past decade. He’ll be stationed at the Boiler Bay State Park vantage point for the winter migration. The retired firefighter said helping people experience their inaugural whale sighting never gets old.

“I’ve had the opportunity now to speak with people from 35 different countries and probably every state in the union,” Horton said. “They see their first whale and the enthusiasm and the excitement regenerates that for me. It’s pretty cool.”

The return voyage occurs in the spring and the adult whales don’t eat for the entirety of the roundtrip, dropping between 10,000 to 20,000 pounds of blubber. But the baby Gray whales drink about 50 gallons of their mother’s milk per day and can gain five pounds per hour, Parsons added.

Understandably, the older whales work up a hearty appetite with all of this swimming, breeding, birthing and fasting. After spending four-to-six weeks in Mexico mating, giving birth to their young and teaching them how to be whales, they head back to the Arctic to feed. Spring Whale Watch Week, set for March 23 to 31, 2019, offers the chance to see them make the return trip.

Washington resident Leigh Calvez, a naturalist and author of “The Breath of a Whale,” is another program volunteer stationed at Boiler Bay, but she’ll be there for the springtime home stretch as the females escort their young back to their Alaska. She said the whales swim closer to shore during the return trip to protect the calves from deep water predators and it’s not unusual to spot them a half mile out.

Calvez has traveled to Mexico when the Gray whales are down there doing their thing. She said they are known as “friendlies” by the Baja locals because they’ll swim up to people for a little attention.

“It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” Calvez said. “I went down there one time and I watched this mother push her calf over to the boat, almost like a babysitting thing. I mean, what wild animal lets you touch their young?”

Weighing in at 70,000 pounds, full-size female Grays reach 45 feet in length, or the size of a school bus. Males tend to be smaller at around 35 feet long. Calvez agrees with her volunteer cohorts that helping spectators view these giants of the deep a priceless experience.

“Whales have an amazing impact on us,” she said. “It’s really fascinating to watch people make that connection to the wild, to the wilderness. There’s an aliveness about them.”

Whether it’s the Winter or Spring Whale Watch Week, officials say the higher the viewpoint the better. Headlands have traditionally topped the list of whale sightings, such as Cape Lookout near Tillamook and Cape Foulweather just south of Depoe Bay. Neahkahnie Mountain Historic Marker Turnout on Highway 101 is another popular location. Officials say it’s a good idea to prepare for wet weather, dress in layers and bring some binoculars.

In addition, OPRD will also be steaming the migration live on its Facebook page at www.facebook.com/OregonStateParks.

“Even if people cannot make it to the coast, “Parsons said, “they’ll be able to count the whales at home from the comfort of their own couch.”

For more information about Winter Whale Watch Week, go to www.whalespoken.org or call the Defoe Bay Whale Watching Center at 541-765-3304.

The Winter and Spring Whale Watch Weeks along the Oregon coast are recognized as some of the best opportunities to view the annual Gray whale migration worldwide. An interactive map of the 24 Whale Watching Spoken Here program locations can be found here.

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