Want to spot nature’s largest animal in the wild?
This week is a great time to make it happen.
Whale Watching Week begins Thursday during the peak of grey whale migrations along the Oregon Coast.
Each year, from mid-December to mid-January, around 20,000 whales swim from the cold Alaskan seas to the warm lagoons of Baja Mexico to give birth to their calves.
“We’re in the upswing right now,” said Luke Parsons, park ranger at the Depoe Bay Whale Watching Center. “And with the nice weather this week, it’s an ideal time to see whales.”
Volunteers will help visitors spot whales at 24 designated locations from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. from Thursday to Monday. It’s a time of year when a little help is nice because the whales are swimming a solid 2 to 5 miles off shore.
The government shutdown doesn't impact Oregon's state parks, and most federal locations on the coast remain open to visitors, Parsons said.
“The whales stay farther out in winter because it’s a little easier for them to navigate in the deeper water,” Parsons said. “They’re in a hurry. They’re headed down to Baja to either breed or give birth, and don’t want to miss the party.”
“There are 30 whales per hour swimming down the shore, but they’re moving fast."
That means spotting spouts in the vast ocean can be a challenge.
While much of the success in whale watching is patience — the willingness to keep your binoculars focused on the ocean — there are a few places and tips that can help improve odds, Parsons said.
Because the whales a bit father out, the best locations are those higher in elevation, ideally in the morning on a clear day.
"In the afternoon, when the sun is right over the ocean, it's sparkling and pretty, but there's so much glare that it's very difficult to see them," Parsons said. "In the morning, the ocean tends to be more clam and of course the sun is behind you, so it's a lot better."
A few places with the highest success rates that you can drive to include Cape Meares (near Tillamook), The Inn at Spanish Head (Lincoln City), Cape Foulweather (Depoe Bay), Cape Perpetua's high overlook (Yachats) and Shore Acres (Coos Bay).
Two places that require a little more adventure — but also provide a greater reward — are hiking to a place to spot whales. Two favorites include Neahkahnie Mountain, a steep three mile hike with a scramble to the summit, and Cape Lookout, a more level 5- mile trek.
“The number of whales that people see really spikes on clear days,” Parsons said. “But in the end, it’s just about having binoculars and staying with it. Patience is often rewarded.”
Where to see whales?
Here's the 24 spots where volunteers will help people spot grey whales Thursday to Monday.
Best hike-in adventure viewing: Neahkahnie Mountain
The tallest peak on the northern Oregon Coast is the legendary home of gods and buried treasure, as well as the inspiration for movies and novels.
It also happens to be one of the best spots to see whales on the coast.
The hike up Neahkahnie Mountain leads to a 1,680-foot summit with views 40 miles out into the ocean. But it's not a walk in the park.
The hike, near Manzanita, requires a 3 mile out-and-back trek that climbs 900 feet beginning from the South Neahkahnie Trailhead.
You’ll reach a beautiful viewpoint along the trail at mile 1.5, but to reach the true summit, you’ll have to scramble up a rocky user path.
Best way to spot whales and stay warm: Inn at Spanish Head
If you don't want to look for whales in the sometimes chilly outdoor air, set up shop at the Inn at Spanish Head Lobby on the 10th floor. Coffee and snacks can be enjoyed while keeping your eyes peeled on the ocean.
Three-in-one whale stop: Depoe Bay
There's a trio of options to chose from in Depoe Bay.
All you need to do is step out of your car to get the possibility of spotting whales at Boiler Bay Scenic Viewpoint right in town. For a short hike and sweeping view, head three miles south to Cape Foulweather.
Finally, if those two places fail, step into the Whale Watching Center in Depoe Bay, where experts can help guide the search.
•Ecola State Park
•Neahkahnie Mountain Historic Marker Turnout
•Cape Meares State Scenic Viewpoint
•Rocky Creek State Scenic Viewpoint
•Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area
•Don Davis City Park, Newport
•Cape Perpetua Interpretive Center
•Cook's Chasm Turnout
•Sea Lion Caves Turnout
•Shore Acres State Park
•Face Rock Wayside State Scenic Viewpoint
•Battle Rock Wayside
•Harris Beach State Park, Brookings
Zach Urness has been an outdoors writer, photographer and videographer in Oregon for 11 years. He is the author of the book “Best Hikes with Kids: Oregon” and “Hiking Southern Oregon.” He can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.