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Whale!

Big trees, big lighthouses, big sights all part of annual Oregon Coast winter experience
by: OMAR TORRES Before whales wow spectators by showing their humongous tails and peaking their heads above the surface of the warm waters off the Californian and Mexican coasts, eager watchers gather on the Oregon Coast to get glimpses of the big beasts.

Whale watching in Oregon isn't for wimps. Gray whales migrate south along the Oregon Coast in December and January, and return north in April. So thousands of whale watchers spend part of their Christmas vacation far from malls and fireplaces, on exposed bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Since 1978, the state has run the Whale Watching Spoken Here program, which trains volunteers to help visitors spot whales. These hardy volunteers hold their posts - 26 vantage points from Ilwaco, Wash., to Crescent City, Calif. - during Christmas and spring vacations. This year, the volunteers are out from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. through Jan. 1, and return from March 19 to 26, 2011.

Last year during the winter week, there were 650 gray whale sightings, with 9,239 contacts between whale watchers and volunteers. Seeing a whale is by no means guaranteed, especially on days with rough seas or rain. Some lookouts proved better than others: Boiler Bay, Cape Foulweather and Cape Ferrelo had the highest number of whale sightings last year.

Portlanders Robert and Evelyn Clink have volunteered at the coast twice a year, every year, since 1994. They love seeing the whales, and the excitement of children who come to look for whales.

They agree that education is important - he's a retired graphic artist and she's a retired accountant - and that there's just something fascinating about the enormity of whales.

'Big trees, big lighthouses, big whales … it's all that syndrome,' Evelyn says.

The couple has weathered high winds and even snow.

'But there have been days when it was just gorgeous,' she adds.

Whale watching

Folks interested in watching for whales gather on the Oregon Coast, site of some great sightings this time of year and in March. COURTESY OF DEPOE BAY WHALE WATCH CENTER

People come from around the world to the Oregon Coast, Evelyn says, and they want to see a whale for themselves. Of course, you don't see the whole whale. Typically you just see the high plume of their exhaled breath, and, if you're lucky, part of a back or maybe a tail.

In the winter the whales travel about three to five miles off shore. According to Linda Taylor, an Oregon State Parks ranger, between 16,000 and 18,000 whales will travel south this year.

The entire pod goes to Baja. Pregnant females give birth in the warm Mexican water, while for other females and males the trip is more like a honeymoon. The whale gestation period is about a year, and in the best circumstances, when food is plentiful, they reproduce every two years.

Steering clear

In the 1970s, when the whale watching program began, the whales were listed as an endangered species. Whale Watching Spoken Here didn't start out so much to raise awareness, says Taylor, but mostly because the public interest was already there.

'You can say conservation of the whales is a goal, but that's not what it started out as,' Taylor says. 'The more people you can reach, and the more people who can see them, then they become kind of real to them. So when something does come up, and we need people to vote, hopefully they do it.'

The whales bounced back and were removed from the endangered species list in 1994. But they face new threats, including increased pollution and climate change.

For the past few years, researchers have noticed gray whales in Baja that are too thin. Their major food source coexists with Arctic ice, and whales that have traditionally fed in the Bering Sea are going further north, to the Chukchi Sea, to eat. With a migration pattern that already takes them 5,000 or 6,000 miles each way, the additional travel is a strain.

This year, an Oregon State University study will test a way to protect whales from colliding with wave energy devices. Wave energy development is in the early stages along the Oregon Coast, and there's a concern that the energy-generating buoys could be a problem for migrating whales.

Beginning just after the official whale watching week, a team led by whale expert Bruce Mate will test a deterrence device off Yaquina Head. The device issues an underwater pinging sound that should warn the whales to steer clear.

From early January through April, researchers will be stationed at the Yaquina Head Lighthouse, counting whales and determining whether their migration path is altered when the sonic device is turned on.

According to Barb Lagerquist, Senior Faculty Research Assistant at OSU's Marine Mammal Institute, scientists use a special measuring device that scans the whales, feeding into a computer and measuring their distance from shore. But basically, a scientist does the same as anyone else: bundle up, find a good vantage point, focus on the horizon, and wait.

Whale Watching Spoke Here volunteers will be stationed along the coast through Saturday, Jan. 1 and March 19-26, 2011; 541-765-3304, www.whalespoken.org .