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Whale Watching Around The World Part 6

Updated on February 25, 2010

4. Oregon and Washington Coast

Heading South

Whales bound for Mexico after a summer spent feeding in the bountiful, frigid waters of Alaska start showing up off the Washington coast at the end of November and off Oregon in early December. The peak of winter migration, some 28 whales passing per hour, generally falls in the first week of January.

The spring gray whale migration extends over a longer period and comes in waves. Males and noncalving females start to appear off Oregon in early March and peak in late March at about 12 to 15 whales per hour. They're followed by mothers with calves in late March. More than 22,000 gray whales make the annual round-trip from Mexico to Alaska.

Besides those whales that migrate through the region, some 200 grays have taken to summering off the Oregon and Washington coasts in recent years and have become familiar to residents. Little is known of their migratory habits. Researchers believe that they spend the winter off Baja and arrive at the tail end of the northbound migration in June. They spend the summer off Oregon and head south in November or December. Attempts to attach radio tags to track their movements have failed: Tags don't withstand the commotion of feeding and courting. But their presence off the Oregon and Washington coasts gives visitors a good chance of seeing whales throughout the year, except for mid-February and early- to mid-November.

Getting a Good View

Whale-watching tours start from Westport, Washington, and at least a half-dozen Oregon ports. They range from floating classrooms staffed with naturalists to charter fishing boats seeking new sources of income in the wake of dwindling salmon catches. Boat tours aren't for everyone. These are rough waters, and motion sickness can take you by surprise (though it's possible to head off queasiness with various over-the-counter and prescription medications). Some small children are thrilled by boat trips, and some aren't. And it's tough to watch whales, especially when the signs, such as blows or brief surfacing, are subtle, when you're also trying to watch roving kids.

Fewer people take to the air to see whales (cost per hour is four to six times that of whale watching by boat), but it's an unforgettable experience. At last count, seven air charter outfits were offering whale-watching tours from runways along the Oregon coast and in the Willamette Valley. Federal regulations require pilots to maintain an altitude of 1,000 feet or higher when they're within 100 surface yards of a whale. So you're not close. But from the air you don't need to wait for a whale to break the surface or expel a breath: Migrating whales tend to swim just beneath the surface, giving you extended views of their entire 50-foot length, from their V-shaped heads to their wide, center-notched flukes.

You do have to acknowledge the geographical location of this area when you're making your whale watching plans, however. This is a region which is often plagued with pea soup fogs and rain ranging from drizzles to downpours which can last for weeks on end. Make sure you're well prepared for rarely seeing the sun!

Continued In Whale Watching Around The World Part 7

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