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Bring along a camera because the whales sometimes get very close to the boats. (Clipper Navigation)

Northwest whale watching

By CARY ORDWAY
NorthwestTravelAdvisor.com

If it's spring in the Pacific Northwest, it must be whale-watching time - that special three-month period between March 1 and June 1 when you are most apt to catch sight of the majestic California Gray Whale. The gray whales migrate each year from Baja California to their feeding grounds way up north in the Chukchi and Bering seas.

It's a great excuse to visit the Washington or Oregon coasts where boats are available for short whale-watching tours that take you right out next to some of the biggest creatures on earth. It's also possible to see the whales from various points along the coastline where high rocks or coastal parks offer broad views of the ocean and the migrating whales.

Altogether there are about 23,000 whales that are estimated to make this annual migration. The whales play and feed along the way on amphipods (they're like small shrimp), fish and kelp.

How close can you get? Whales will sometimes swim right up next to the boats. They'll roll on their sides and drift along and sometimes lift their heads completely out of the water. You might also see them jumping out of the water - quite a sight considering a gray whale might weigh as much as 35 tons.

Westport, Washington, with its fishing fleet is a good place to go to find a whale-watching charter. People of all ages will enjoy spending a couple hours on the ocean and the locals say you have about a 95 percent chance of seeing a whale.

The Oregon Coast offers whale watching from many different fishing ports along the coast and has especially good places along the coastline to view the whales from land. Neahkahnie Mountain on the northern coast and Yaquina Head, a little further down the coast, are among the best places to go based on the number of sightings. Keep in mind that sightings do vary from year to year, and the total number of sightings can be more in an area if there happen to be more people visiting that area.

One whale-watching option close to Seattle is the Victoria Clipper which offers regular service between Seattle and Victoria, B.C. Clipper Vacations is again offering an excursion that allows passengers to see the whales and also spend some time on Whidbey Island, docking at Coupeville.

The Saturday and Sunday Gray Whale and Sea Life Search excursion is aboard the Victoria Clipper III, departing from Pier 69 in Seattle at 9am. The cruise offers a naturalist to explain more to passengers about what they will be viewing on the cruise.

If you're going on any of the whale-watching cruises, be sure to wear a warm jacket because even in spring the air temperature over the ocean can be cold. And be sure to bring a camera - you'll likely get close enough to get some dramatic photos to show friends and family when you get home.

Here are some interesting whale facts presented by the charters of Westport:

  • Gray whales were almost driven to extinction in the 1850's. They were protected in 1946 by the International Whaling Commission. In 1993, they were removed from the endangered species list, but they are still protected.
  • Today, there are about 23,000 gray whales - about the same population that existed prior to hunting.
  • Whales stay underwater 3-5 minutes to eat. They can stay down up to 15 minutes.
  • Man, orcas, and large sharks are gray whales' only predators.
  • Gray whales get up to 47 feet in length and weigh as much as 70,000 pounds.
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