Gray whale breaches

By Tiffany Woods

Oregon Sea Grant has helped whale-watching charter boat companies, fishermen and conservationists agree on best practices for enjoying—but not disturbing—the 20,000 gray whales that migrate past the Oregon coast each year.

Leigh Torres, a marine mammal specialist with Oregon Sea Grant Extension and a professor in Oregon State University’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, began meeting with these groups in 2014 to get their buy-in on the voluntary guidelines, which are modeled after those of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“We weren’t trying to come up with new rules,” said Torres, adding that most regular boaters are already following most of the practices.

The recommendations will appear on the website WatchOutForWhales.org, which is under development, and in a brochure that Torres aims to distribute along the coast at tourist spots, state parks and marinas. She hopes the guidelines will also be posted aboard charter vessels and at the charter companies’ offices. The idea is not only to educate boaters but also to help participants on chartered trips better understand why vessels shouldn’t get too close to whales, said Torres. “Otherwise they push the operators to get closer,” she said.

The guidelines recommend, among other things, that boaters don’t approach quickly, don’t bang on the sides of their boats, don’t spend more than 30 minutes with a whale, stay at least 150 yards away if a calf is present and don’t surround a whale.

The latter two recommendations take into account whales’ behavior once they reach Oregon, where they tend to feed close to the shore and are thus more susceptible to being hemmed in, Torres said. Also, on their northward migration, they have calves in tow and so the mothers might be stressed and need more space than the recommended 100 yards, said Torres.

NOAA’s six regional offices have developed voluntary viewing guidelines tailored to species in their areas. Additionally, federal law makes it illegal to attempt to feed any marine mammal and limits people’s proximity to certain whales.

For the past two summers, from lookouts at Port Orford and Depoe Bay, Torres and her team have been monitoring the feeding behavior of gray whales and their interactions with all types of vessels, to determine whether and to what degree such interactions have an effect on the whales’ behavior. 

Every fall, about 20,000 gray whales migrate south to calve along the Baja California Peninsula. In the spring they head north to the bountiful feeding grounds in the Bering Sea. About 200 of those whales cut their northern migration short and instead summer between northern California and southeast Alaska. As a result, gray whales can be seen along the Oregon coast from May to October, creating a popular tourist attraction.

A report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare estimated that nearly 377,000 tourists watched whales along the Oregon Coast by land, sea or air in 2008 and spent $30 million on tickets, lodging, food, transportation and related costs. About 64,000 of those tourists watched whales from boats. In 2008, there were 11 operators running boat-based tours along the Oregon coast in over 35 vessels, the report said.

Additional reporting by Mark Floyd.

Learn More: