Spring is the best time to visit the Oregon coast and see gentle giants on their 12,000-mile journey to Alaska.
It’s almost like spotting a shooting star. You patiently scan the dark blue ocean, hoping for a glimpse of a whale spout or a fluke breaking the surface. Knowing these enormous, otherworldly creatures are hovering just below, about to appear at any moment, makes your heart race. Then, a movement in the distance. Somehow you know it’s more than just a swollen wave. Suddenly a giant animal shoots out of the water, amazing everyone around you into a stunned silence that breaks only after the beast’s crashing splash back into the sea.
Whale spotting is part luck, part perfect timing, so mark your calendar. Twice a year (in March and December), whale-savvy volunteers staff 28 posts along the Oregon coast, eager to share their knowledge with anyone passing by. You can watch from land or sea and pick up loads of info from either perch.
The great Pacific Ocean migration runs like clockwork for an estimated 20,000 gray whales. The mammals winter in the lagoons
of Baja Mexico, mating and birthing calves. Then nearly all of them head to the Bering and Chukchi seas off Alaska to summer
in the crustacean-rich Arctic. After the males journey north in February, mothers and calves travel together, swimming closer
to shore to protect against deep-water threats like great white sharks and orcas. All in all, it’s a 12,000-mile convoy.
Of course, the sight is spectacular even when you see just one or two. Read on for ways to make the most of your whale-watching vacation.
It might seem less than ideal to search for whales from shore, but Whale Week sites offer perfect vistas. During 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. shifts, volunteers with the Oregon Parks “Whale Watching Spoken Here” program set up shop next to lighthouses, on beaches, and near cliffs. They offer advice for spotting migrating gray whales and teach basic sea-mammal biology. Visitors rarely find empty seas. Last March, more than 13,000 people saw more than 2,000 of the creatures. You’ll want binoculars, and here’s a tip: Raise them slowly or you’ll have a hard time zooming in on what your naked eye suspects is a whale. There’s probably already a group of people scanning the horizon; join them and wait to hear, “I see one!” The excitement is contagious.
Tour boats put you right in the middle of the action. On the 47-foot Morning Star, one of several whale-watching charters operating out of Depoe Bay, expectant seafarers spend an hour with their eyes trained on the indigo water. Then a whale flips a fin, or a spout erupts into air, and jubilant shouts ring out on deck. Spectators rush to the appropriate side for a look. Try your luck year-round out of Depoe Bay, where cruises begin at $18; tradewindscharters.com.
For whale watchers and ocean lovers alike, Oregon’s lighthouses provide spectacular lookouts for gazing out to sea. Of the 28 official Whale Week sites, five are beacons. Near dairy town Tillamook, Cape Meares Lighthouse draws a crowd, rain or shine. Down south, Cape Blanco’s 139-year-old lighthouse stares down choppy seas on its cliffside spur. For tops in the awe category, admire the island lighthouse’s how-did-they-do-that construction near Cannon Beach on The Rock near Ecola State Park. Visit discoveroregonlighthouses.com.
Bright, sunny March days in Oregon are like somersaulting gray whales—unpredictable. Last March, temperatures in Pacific City and Coos Bay hit the mid-50s while a slushy snow fell inland. Three gear musts: warm but non-bulky gloves, thin shirts for layering, and a foul-weather jacket.
If you can’t make it during Whale Week, come a few months later. Depoe Bay, home to the state’s Whale Watching Center, boat tours, and whale-inspired shops and cafés, may be the gray capital of the West Coast. Nearly 50 whales spend the spring and summer in the area. Local marine biologist Carrie Newell assigns them identifying names such as Notch, Zebra Stripe, and Scarback. “These are probably the most-seen whales in the United States,” she says. For a close encounter, she takes six-person groups into the bay on her Zodiac boat. To book a late spring or summer boat trip, call 541/912-6734.
When to go: Ideally late March, and again in December, usually the last week of the year. While volunteers are available to lead the
quest only during these weeks, sightings are possible every week of the year (though less frequent in November and February).
Check whalespoken.org for details.
Getting there: Fly into Portland International Airport (PDX) and head 70 miles west on scenic U.S. 26 to Cannon Beach.
Scenic detours: Explore Tillamook, Depoe Bay, and the rugged river port of Brookings. Your main whale-watching route, U.S. Hwy 101, passes smokehouses, crab houses, pancake houses, espresso huts, and welcoming sea villages. For an ocean view hike, try the Neahkahnie Mountain turnout between mile markers 41 and 42.
Inn love: Check into the updated Inn at Cannon Beach, from $169; atcannonbeach.com.
For the best meal, hit Lincoln City’s BlackFish Café. Fresh and local offerings range from seafood-studded cioppino to salmon to duck breast.
Pig ’N Pancake (Astoria, Cannon Beach, Seaside) is an Oregon coast classic. Try the homemade banana pancakes with orange-pineapple syrup. Yum!
Pelican Pub & Brewery (Pacific City), a maritime public house, is a rare treat: an oceanfront brewery. Award-winning ales, pan-fried mahi mahi, and beer-battered fries will fuel you up for more whale watching. Or stay awhile and enjoy the wide-open views of Haystack Rock and Cape Kiwanda.