Do Oregon Coast visitors know enough about whales?

NEWPORT, Ore. – For the past several weeks, gray whales that spent the spring breeding or calving in the waters off Mexico have been arriving in the Pacific Northwest to feed for the summer and fall, including areas along the Oregon coast.

The gray whales often are visible to coastal visitors from the bluffs along Highway 101, or to ocean fishing enthusiasts pursuing salmon, halibut or other fish. Whale-watching tours available in many coastal ports introduce hundreds of tourists to migrating and resident whales.

But gray whales aren’t the only species of whale that can be seen off Oregon, according to experts at Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute.

“You can sometimes spot humpback whales and blue whales along the coast, but typically they are further from shore,” said Barb Lagerquist, who does whale research for the institute, located in OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center. “Having said that, people last year got a rare peek at blues and humpbacks within a couple of miles of shore off Depoe Bay.”

During migration, gray whales often travel close to shore, with mothers and calves close together, Lagerquist noted, and it isn’t uncommon to see groups of three to five adults together. There is a small population of gray whales – perhaps 200 or so – that feed off the coasts of northern California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and southeast Alaska from May to October, rather than migrating to the Arctic. These resident whales are known as the Pacific Coast Feeding Group.

“We have already seen some of these animals along the coast this year,” Lagerquist said. “They feed very close to shore in waters depths of less than 20 meters. We recently saw a mother-calf pair inside the tip of the north jetty in Newport’s Yaquina Bay as we were heading out in our boat.”

Less frequent visitors to Oregon waters are minke whales, which are more common off Asia and in the Arctic, but will occasionally venture within a few miles of shore.

How can you tell what kind of whale you’re seeing? Lagerquist said the keys to whale identification are body size, color, the presence or absence of dorsal fins, and the position and shape of the dorsal fins. Most whales seen off Oregon will be grays, she added, especially close to shore.

Adult gray whales are about 35 to 45 feet in length, and are a mottled gray in color with occasional white spots and white barnacle scars. They usually have patches of barnacles and whale lice on their bodies.

Gray whales don’t have a dorsal fin, but have dorsal “knuckles” – a series of bumps protruding from their back and extending along their tail. “The first knuckle can be quite large and look like a small dorsal fin,” Lagerquist said.

Humpback whales are slightly bigger than grays – about 40 to 50 feet in length – and are dark gray or even black in color. They have very long, narrow “wing-like” pectoral fins, which can be white on the underside. Humpbacks also have a small, stepped dorsal fin.

Humpbacks are very acrobatic, Lagerquist said, and can often be seen breaching, or propelling almost their entire body out of the water – spinning around and landing on their back or side.

Minkes are the smallest baleen whale, at 23 to 33 feet. They are dark gray to black with white bands on the top of their small pectoral fins – sometimes called “white mittens.” They may also haves a pale gray chevron, or swirling pattern, on their back, and they have a prominent falcate dorsal fin. Sightings of these animals close to Northwest shores are rare.

Blue whales are occasionally seen off the coast and are notable because of their massive size, Lagerquist said. These whales can reach lengths of 75 to 85 feet and weight as much as 240,000 pounds. Blue whales are a mottled bluish-gray color and have a small dorsal fin on the back quarter of their body that may be falfcate, pointed or triangular in shape.

Killer whales may also be seen along the Oregon coast, most commonly in spring months during the gray whale mother/calf migration. Killer whales are not technically whales, but rather the largest member of the dolphin family, reaching 20 to 32 feet in length.

They have a striking black and white color pattern, with a white eye patch, a white patch extending from underneath up their sides, and a gray “saddle patch” behind their dorsal fin. Adult males have a very tall, triangular dorsal fin; female dorsal fins are falcate.

Lagerquist reminds coastal visitors that all marine mammals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, and it is illegal to harass them. Vessels or people in the water should not approach whales closer than 100 yards. Violators may be subject to fines and/or imprisonment.