Before the coming of white man, much of Oregon’s mid-coast was home to a group of Native Americans known as the Siletz people, who flourished on a diet rich in salmon, berries and the fruits of a lush forest environment. Little remains of the footprint of this early cultural group whose very language is extinct, but one of their number – Depoe Charley - is often given credit for naming a community which lies at the center of a stretch of seacoast known as “the twenty miracle miles”. Depoe Bay lays claim to having the smallest, land-locked navigable harbor in the world and some of the most spectacular surf action in America’s northwest. Besides that, its relatively-warm river-fed waters are home to an abundance of phyto plankton and benthic crustaceans attractive to migrating baleen whales. And therein lies a unique feature of Depoe Bay.
Each year, Gray Whales follow an ancient 12,000 mile migration route between their winter range off the Baja coast, and their summer feeding grounds in Alaska’s Bering Sea. Not only do they feed hungrily along the Oregon coast while en route, but at least one “pod” of Grays has taken up a ten-month-long residency at Depoe Bay, where a program called “Whale-Watching Spoken Here” is highlighted by a State-operated whale natural history center drawing visitors from around the world.
Most days, visitors with binoculars line the western edge of U.S. Coastal Route 101 hoping to catch a glimpse of the ocean giants, or just to admire the geysers of sea water sending “horns” of spray into the air where a breaking surf crashes into basalt tubes carved in the town’s seafront by eons of tidal action. The more hardy can board one of several whale-watching boats which regularly thread their way through the tiny harbor entrance, (an act known as “shooting the hole”), to cruise the whale feeding zones offshore.
Almost hunted to extinction elsewhere in the world, the magnificent Grays have staged a come-back in America’s Pacific waters where more than 8000 have been noted in a recent census. Some worry though that Japan’s decision to renew the taking of whales could once again pose a threat to this revival.
An adult Gray will reach 45 to 50 feet in length – the females are larger – and weigh in at 40 to 50 tons (one ton for each foot of length). To complete their semi-annual migration, they feed voraciously, sucking up several tons of tiny mysid shrimp each day by straining the sea mud through their filter-like baleen, while plowing on one side through the sea bottom. They tend to have young every two or three years with the gestation period taking twelve months. A baby Gray weighs 2000 pounds at birth, and emerges tail-first. It has 15 seconds to reach the surface to take its first, life-giving breath and will learn to swim in just 30 minutes.
There are many reasons why a visit to Depoe Bay and Oregon’s “twenty miracle miles” is a worthwhile adventure, but the chance to consort with some of Neptune’s Giants has to be right up there at the head of the list.
Passengers aboard “SAMSON” have just observed a surfacing Gray Whale off their starboard bow. Boats are not permitted to “pursue” whales, but rather try to position themselves where one is apt to come into view.
Unlike other species, the Gray whale exhales from two blow holes, giving it a distinctive V-shaped plume. When feeding near shore, they will surface every two to three minutes.
Exhibiting its tail flukes dramatically, a Gray launches into a deepwater “sounding” which will last about five minutes. This species gets its name not only from its base color, but because of the patches of barnacles which give a mottling effect. With only humans and Orcas as predators, the Gray Whale can live for 50 years.
(Photos by Cindy Cooper Bagley)