I was wave-watching rather than whale-watching as I stood by the sea wall in Depoe Bay last week. The huge swells rolling in sent white-water crashing over a rocky headland, dazzling in the welcome sunshine. Returning waves collided with incoming ones, exploding vertically. As mesmerising as the waves were, these were tough conditions for spotting whales. But then a thin veil of spray rose from just beyond the headland. Then another, followed by the mottled back of a gray whale glistening in the sunlight, an awesome surprise.
The small town of Depoe Bay on the Oregon coast is a whale-watching hot spot. Even out of season there were constantly people pausing along the sea wall to spot blows, many equipped with binoculars. The whale-watching companies that run boat trips from June to October while some of the Pacific Coast Feeding Group are around had stopped for winter just a week before. Unfortunately, the Oregon State Parks Whale Watching Centre — usually open year-round — was also temporarily closed for maintenance but would be open again before the next Whale Watching Week in December at the peak of the southward migration.
Happy with my gray whale sighting, I cycled out of town. Keen to reach Newport in good time, I almost didn’t stop at Rocky Creek State Scenic viewpoint just a couple of miles south of Depoe Bay. The number of parked cars and the sight of someone on the cliff edge with binoculars piqued my interest though. Wheeling my laden bike over the grass, more spectators came into view on a rocky promontory, lining the footpath and standing on the same grassy headland as me, all looking over a small cove. Between the waves, a blow from the centre of the cove, then another close to the first and, out of the corner of my eye, a third right in near the rocks. Three gray whales and they were so close!
As the closest two surfaced through the swells, I could make out their narrow heads, pale with barnacles, then their blows and rolling backs, sometimes a glimpse of their tail flukes just below the surface as they dived again. As I watched, the whales gradually moved this way then that, nearer then further from my viewpoint. Then there were two. Still the crowds remained, as hooked as I was. If I hadn’t had a bike shop to reach I could have stayed there all day, watching the gray whales in Whale Cove.
Neah Bay, close to the most northwesterly point of the contiguous US, was a bit of a detour for me but — as the home of the Makah Tribe — an important stop. Unfortunately, my short visit didn’t allow me to meet any of the Makah Tribe but I found the Makah Museum fascinating.
Much of the museum is dedicated to the story of Ozette, a Makah village that was buried by a mudslide approximately 500 years ago, then increasingly exposed by coastal erosion in 1969. A huge operation was launched to salvage not just artefacts from the village but also confirmation of the Makah’s way of life at that time.
As well as the Ozette operation, the museum outlined the seasonal patterns of subsistence of the tribe, including the springtime gray whale hunt. The hunt was halted in 1920 after commercial whaling had dramatically reduced the gray whale population. Since the eastern Pacific gray whale population was removed from the endangered list in 1994, the Makah have been keen to resume subsistence whaling. The discussions regarding this are still ongoing.
As well as the gray whales that pass close to shore during the northward migration in spring, some gray whales (the Pacific coast feeding group) remain in the Oregon-Washington-SE Alaska region until autumn and I was lucky enough to spot one from shore. I’d camped out at Hobuck Beach, four miles from Neah Bay, and had braved the mosquitoes to look for whales as I ate my supper on the beach. All was quiet. My luck changed in the morning though, when blows rose up from beyond the surf. A gray whale!
The whale-watching trip started slowly, searching the Salish Sea under sunny skies and a biting wind. Areas that had been brimming with humpback whales just a few days before now yielded nothing. Time slipped away, followed closely by the feeling in my fingers and toes. Then, a blow! Our first humpback whale, heading steadily east. Then two more blows, a pair of humpbacks diving together. Next, a small group of Dall’s porpoise whizzing along so quickly I didn’t even raise my camera. Instead, I watched the black and white torpedoes shooting through the swell in a flurry of splashes. Then, the highlight for me, southern resident killer whales!
The southern resident killer whale population numbers less than 80 individuals and is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The scarcity of salmon (their favoured prey), the presence of persistent organic pollutants in the environment, vessel disturbance and underwater noise are all considered factors in the population’s decline, so it was an honour to see them. Amongst the group was an adult male whose impressively tall dorsal fin just kept on rising out of the water, and a mother-calf pair, one of only a few calves born to the population in recent times. Massive thanks to Eagle Wing tours and Anna for such an incredible trip!
In other news, whilst camping in the ancient rainforest of Goldstream Park, I coped bravely with my fellow forest inhabitants. Paw-steps around my tent prompted only occasional outbursts of abuse and I slept through an assault on my bear canister entirely. Having seen my first live raccoon of the trip the evening before, I put the attack down to the little masked bandits, probably nothing to do with bears at all.