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Watching Whales


B.R. Mate

Marine mammals-especially whales-are really popular with the American public.

A growing interest in firsthand observation of whales brings many hopeful whale watchers to the coast. Whale watching is something you definitely get better at with practice, but it takes some patience.

Once you have seen what you are looking for, additional sightings are much easier, and you will start to see more details of whale behavior.

Even without scientific training, you can contribute to what science is learning about whales. One way to do this is to build accurate and systematic habits of observing, identifying, recording, and reporting your whale sightings.

Here are a few tips. Remember, patience is a virtue!

When and where

  1. Observe from coastal headlands that jut out into the ocean-especially those with good elevation. When shallow-water whales move along the shoreline, they usually will go around headlands very close to the point-and you are closer to deepwater species as well
  2. Pick early morning hours. Conditions are usually more favorable before winds cause whitecaps on the water's surface.
  3. Choose weather that favors a calm ocean. Don't go during or just after a heavy storm. Overcast days are good for whale watching because there is little glare.

Figure 1 [omitted].Blowing and diving characteristics of some of the large whales (reproduced by permission from Gordon C. Pike, Guide to the Whales, Porpoises and Dolphins of the North-East Pacific and Arctic Waters of Canada and Alaska).

What to look for

  1. Scan the horizon and look for the blow-vapor, water, or condensation blown into the air up to 12 feet (3.6 m) when the whale exhales. (Backlighting by the afternoon sun can sometimes be helpful in spotting the blow initially.) See figure 1.
  2. Once you locate a blow, stay with it. Where you see one blow, you will see others, either from other whales or the same whale. Getting the range (distance) to whales is a frequent problem, but once you establish it, you can focus your attention on this area.
  3. Whales have periodic blow patterns during their migration. Usually an individual will make up to a half dozen short, shallow dives before a more prolonged dive of up to 10 minutes (more generally, 3 to 5 minutes). Frequently, whales leave turbulent eddies along the surface after short dives, so you can track their progress and set up a camera or spotting scope to anticipate the next blow.
  4. Usually, only a small portion of the whale's head and back show during a blow. You can distinguish one whale from another by observing the position and shape of the dorsal fin, blow, head, back ridges, and tail. If the tail flukes are raised high, the dive will usually be a deep one (the whale is sounding). In shallow water, the animal may keep the flukes aloft for several minutes while head standing.
  5. Spy hopping is a term applied to a whale with its head partially out of the water in a vertical posture, frequently bringing the eye above the surface. Whales may do this both to see better and to listen with more directional sensitivity.
  6. Breaching is a term we use when a whale rises vertically out of the water (often one-half to three-quarters_ of its length) and falls to its side or back-making a spectacular splash when it hits the water. The reasons suggested for breaching include knocking off whale lice (an external parasite), communicating, courting, or just having fun. Often where one whale breaches, others will start to breach also. Individuals frequently breach repeatedly, so if you see one breach, get your camera ready-you are in for a real treat!

Here are some keys to identifying most large whales along the Oregon coast:

The Mark O. Hatfield Marine Science Center of Oregon State University would like to hear about dead whales if you see them on the beach. Call Bruce Mate at (541) 8673011.

Whale-watching record

You might find this form useful to keep a record of your whale sightings—but use the form that suits you best. Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center would appreciate a copy of your records. You may send them to:

Dr. Bruce Mate
Hatfield Marine Science Center
2010 Marine Science Drive
(Newport, Oregon 97365.

Thanks for your help!

Location observed:

Columbia River South Jetty

Tillamook Head

Cape Falcon

Cape Meares

Cape Lookout

Cascade Head

Depoe Bay

Cape Foulweather

Yaquina Head

Cape Perpetua

Heceta Head

Umpqua Lighthouse

Cape Arago

Cape Blanco

Cape Sebastian

Harris Beach State Park

Other location:


Name of observer


Location of observations

Percent cloud cover:

0-25   25-50   50-75   75-100

Wind speed

Wind direction


Sea condition

Direction of travel

Time of observation

No. of whales in group

Additional notes:

This publication is funded by Oregon Sea Grant through NOAA, Office of Sea Grant and Extramural Programs, U.S. Department of Commerce, under grant no.NA76RG0476, project no. A/SGE-4. Oregon Sea Grant is based at, and receives support from,Oregon State University, a Land Grant, Sea Grant, and Space Grant institution funded in part by the Oregon legislature.

Sea Grant combines basic research, education, and technology transfer to serve the public. This national network of universities works with others in the private and public sectors to meet the changing
environmental, economic, and social needs of people in America's coastal, ocean, and Great Lakes regions.

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