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A whale of a sight: Learn to spot humpback, gray and orca whales in the Columbia-Pacific

Swirling birds and plume give them away

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Spectacular sea mammals

A humpback whale breaches near the Astoria Bridge in September 2015.

Growing up in the vicinity of Yellowstone, on weekend drives in the country we used to have family competitions to be first to shout out about large wildlife. Pronghorn antelope were barely worth mentioning, while spying a bull moose down in the willows might be worth an extra slice of pie and several days praise as “best spotter.” Just imagine how exciting it would be for a kid to glance out a backseat window and see a humpback whale.

On visits to the Columbia River estuary, you might not have to imagine. In the past two summers of 2016 and 2015, there were countless sightings of humpback plumes, pointy backs, and iconic tail flukes. Many have even been so lucky to be watching as whales have come pirouetting out of the Columbia like Winnebago-size trout.

Singing giants

There’s something almost mythical about humpbacks. If they didn’t exist, our ancient storytellers would have made them up. They are the stuff of wildest imagination: Giant creatures with grooves in their vast gullets so as to swiftly slip through the sea, singing ethereal songs of freedom that endlessly echo through the black canyons of the fathomless deep.

Spectacular sea mammals

A humpback whale breaches in the Columbia River near Astoria in September 2015.

What verve! Based on amateur videos taken in the Columbia during the summer of 2016, you can imagine them giggling like underwater schoolgirls before rocketing into the air just beside or behind a flabbergasted Buoy 10 fisherman. Staid scientists always caution us to resist attaching human-like emotions to wild animals, but what else can this be but sheer love of life? I’ve always wanted to be reborn as an otter, but the humpbacks are making me reconsider.

Watch for swirling birds

Nutritious anchovies, herring, and other little baitfish comprise an ever-moving feast for humpbacks and other species near the apex of the food pyramid. Vast schools of baitfish enter our rich estuary. Herded into tight, spinning balls of life by swooping seabirds and darting seals and sea lions, their life-and-death dramas unfold before our eyes like National Geographic documentaries.

This churning storm of life is often the best sign humpbacks may be present on the incoming tide.

Commenting on Columbia humpbacks last September, Washington coast playwright Joe Paliani said, “Beautiful. Yesterday there was a ball of bait in that same area being mauled by sea lions. They battered the bait with their tails, and broke the water’s surface, attracting hundreds of hungry gulls and cormorants to that foaming surface, diving and eating the remains of the whacked baitfish struggling on the surface. An explosion of life and death bursting right before God and everyone else’s eyes, just a half mile offshore by the church. The struggle went on and on…”

By land and sea

There have been some astounding encounters between recreational fishermen and curious leviathans out in the river, but most humpbacks are seen from U.S. Highway 101 near the north end of the Astoria Bridge. The whales also are often seen just north of the Hammond Marina and elsewhere near where the river joins the sea. There even have been awesome sightings right in front of Astoria.

Spectacular sea mammals

A humpback whale spouts near the Astoria Bridge in September 2015.

The past two summers and early autumns, they’ve probably been most often seen just south of the picturesque St. Mary’s Catholic Church at McGowan, Washington — also the site of the fascinating Middle Village/Station Camp Unit of Lewis and Clark National Historical Park. Another good place to stop and watch for whales is the park’s Dismal Nitch Unit just east of the Astoria Bridge’s north end. (Be careful to park safely and keep an eye out for distracted drivers while crossing the highway to the shoreline.)

Besides looking for signs of baitfish, another way to know humpbacks are around is to keep an eye open for their plumes, geysers of vapor that shoot a dozen feet into the air.

Spotting them the first few times will make you feel like stepping into Herman Melville’s "Moby Dick." It will be a lifetime memory if your kids can shout, “Thar she blows!”

Orcas, grays, and more

In recent years, we’ve learned Puget Sound’s three pods of southern resident Killer Whales spend months each spring hunting for Chinook salmon around the mouth of the Columbia River. But you’ll need to be lucky indeed to spot them out in the unbounded ocean and in the miles-wide river.

They are occasionally witnessed from Fort Stevens and Cape Disappointment state parks, where jetties jut out into the river’s biologically rich plume. Once in a while, orcas are spotted from charter fishing boats in the ocean, and less often from ocean-side homes.

Spectacular sea mammals

An orca splashes in the waters of the Columbia River plume with Cape Disappointment Lighthouse in the distance. Orcas from Puget Sound’s famous J, K and L pods are frequent visitors to the mouth of the Columbia River, where they hunt for Chinook salmon. 

Orca brains are five times larger than ours. Can those enormous brains discern the distant whispers of delicious Chinook salmon or precisely compute the date and place of a salmon run’s return after three years at sea? Does something like an air-traffic control screen play across an orca’s cerebral cortex, plotting the vectors of currents and tides and the flavor of the sea? Do they experience ecstasy as the cold ocean massages their smooth, warm skin? Are the deep, black ocean depths as lovely to them as a clear blue sky is to us?

One source says the Chinook Indian phrase for orcas was kakowan yaka pishak. Altogether, a modern English translation might be “naughty whale,” which makes sense particularly for the southern resident Killer Whale pods that come down the coast from Puget Sound and specialize in hunting Chinook salmon. By one estimate, a pod eats 800,000 salmon a year. This would not have endeared them to coastal tribes.

Much more commonly, gray whales make their way up and down the West Coast each year — southbound to Baja California, Mexico from mid-December through January, and northbound from late-March to June. A few stay in the area year round.

Each year during the peak migrations — the week between Christmas and New Year and the last week of March — the Whale Watching Spoken Here program offers assisted whale watching at 26 sites along the coast. Local sites manned by volunteers include the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Cape Disappointment State Park in Ilwaco, Washington; Ecola State Park in Cannon Beach; and the Neah-Kah-Nie Mountain Historic Marker Turnout on U.S. Highway 101 near Manzanita.

Spectacular sea mammals

Volunteers Georgeann Silvermann and Richard Cook look out over the ocean for gray whales at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center at Cape Disappointment State Park in Ilwaco, Washington. Over a five-day period, Saturday to Wednesday, volunteers at the center count whales that pass by.

Grays are most often spotted thanks to their plumes as they swim along the shoreline like contented dairy cows. While humpbacks leap for joy, gray whales merely breathe in and out, their salty exhalations like the exhaust from some sleepy seaside cavern where enchanted sailors never awake. For more tips on grays, check out visittheoregoncoast.com/whale-watching

Researchers fairly often see fin whales — the world’s second largest species — in deeper waters well offshore from the Columbia’s mouth. But six years ago scientists got a lifetime thrill when they found six gigantic blue whales grazing above this vast undersea canyon 30 miles due west of the Long Beach Peninsula.

“On the wow-factor scale, it’s a big wow,” a Washington state biologist said.

Spectacular sea mammals

An orca mother and calf were photographed by researchers in the ocean west on the Long Beach Peninsula.

For experts and ordinary boaters alike, blue whales are easy to identify. Blues can reach more than 100 feet in length and weigh as much as 400,000 pounds, or up to twice as large as the biggest dinosaur. An old photo shows a dead blue whale occupying three entire railroad flatcars. An adult’s heart alone weighs 1,300 pounds, heavy as a great white shark.

These endangered leviathans, thought to be the largest animals to have existed since the dawn of time, weren’t known to spend much time in local waters.

“This is the most blue whales we know of ever being sighted off Washington and only the third confirmed sighting in the last 50 years,” said John Calambokidis, research biologist with Cascadia Research. It’s still unknown whether blue whales are expanding their range into this area, or if they are customarily here every winter, in plain sight in the raging deep-blue ocean.

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