On a clear day, you may see cetaceans

Visitors to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center observation deck at Fort Canby State Park in Ilwaco, look to the sea for signs of migrating gray whales. DAMIAN MULINIX photo

ILWACO - A small group gathered around the windows of the Fort Canby Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center observation deck, binoculars at the ready, watching the horizon line for any movement.

"Look, I think I see one!"

"Where?"

"Never mind, it's a rock or something."

And so went much of the first day of "Whale Watch Week," a seven-day event geared towards observing the gray whale migration as they pass along the West Coast.

The 25th annual such event, which runs from Dec. 26 to Jan. 2, features designated whale-watching sites, mostly on the Oregon coast, set up for those interested in trying to get a peek at the largest animals on the planet, as they migrate south from Alaska to Mexico. Volunteers will be available to answer questions from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. through Jan. 2 at the 29 look-out points, including Fort Canby.

The whales brought a good number of folks out for the first official day of viewing, the day after Christmas. Scanning the parking lot, you could see license plates from as close as Oregon - and as far away as Colorado. Gerald Dupree of Camas drove over to see if he could spot any.

"They're kind of hard to see. They're so far out there all the time," said Dupree. "Beautiful scenery, though."

Scott Stirdivant of Portland reported the same degree of success as he walked the nature trail back from the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse.

"Nope, didn't see anything," said Stirdivant, who has done some whale watching in the past in Oregon, with what he describes as "similar results."

Some had better luck than others, however.

"Yeah, we saw some out that direction," said Melanie Cimrim of Boston.

She had made the trip out to the coast that day with her mother and father, who live in the Portland area. Whale watching is a family tradition of sorts for them that started when the whole family lived in Massachusetts. Cimrim's father would take her and her siblings out to watch the humpback whale migration every year and has continued since moving west.

Last year, over 1,400 whales were spotted by visitors to the 29 sites that stretch from Ilwaco to Crescent City, Calif. Factors such as weather and the number of visitors to attend the week-long event will factor into how many whales are recorded this year - although there have been early signs that this could be a year for similar numbers.

Gray whales, also known as eastern North Pacific gray whales, migrate past the coasts of southern Washington, Oregon, and northern California for a few weeks before and after the Whale Watch Week. Scientists will also be watching the numbers of the whales migrating south, and then again in the spring as they return north. Earlier this year, new estimates showed that the population of the species was not increasing, and may in fact be declining.

The gray whale is a baleen whale, which is a filter feeder. Whalers used to call them "devilfish" because of the fierce defense they would put up when hunted. They have a layer of blubber up to 10 inches thick, which is relied upon during migration, as they eat very little as they travel. These giant mammals grow to be at the most 45 to 50 feet long and weigh usually close to 36 tons at maturity.

Information about gray whales and Whale Watching Week can be found at www.whalespoken.org.

Whale Watching Tips

• Observe from the coastal headlands that jut out into the ocean - especially those with good elevation.

• Try early morning hours. Conditions usually are more favorable before winds cause whitecaps on the water's surface.

• 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.

• Scan the horizon and look for the "blow" - vapor, water or condensation blown into the air up to 12 feet when the whale exhales. Backlighting by the afternoon sun can sometimes be helpful in spotting the blow initially.

• Once you locate a blow, stay with it. Where you see one, you will see others - either from other whales or the same initial one.

Gray whale fact sheet

Whales are mammals. They breath air, have hair (calves have hairs around the front of their heads), are warm blooded, and give birth to live offspring that suckle milk from their mothers. The gray whale is in the sub-order Mysticeti. The Mysticeti whales have baleen instead of teeth. The male gray whale can reach 45 feet, while the female can reach 50 feet and weigh 30 or 35 tons. The largestgrey whales have flukes, or tails, that may span ten feet.

The gray whale has two blowholes, and between nine and 14 dorsal nodules on its back, instead of a back fin. A gray whale spout or blow can reach up to 15 feet, and resembles a heart shape from the front or behind. The natural color of the gray whale is dark gray. Often the skin is discolored from barnacle scars left on the skin.

While they are in the northern waters, the gray whales feed mostly on tiny, shrimp-like amphipods. Amphipods are very abundant in the northern waters during the summer because the longer days produce more phytoplankton and zooplankton, the food amphipods feed upon. Gray whales are the only bottom feeding whale. The amphipods they live on thrive in the muddy bottoms of the North Pacific Ocean. A single gray whale is believed to turn over 50 acres of sediment during a season of feeding. The mud thus churned is oxygenated, exposed to the nutrient rich water and is in effect seeded for the next years harvest. An unseen, insiduous hazard to the species is the clogging of the bottoms of many bays and shorelines by muddy runoff from upstream clear cut timber lands. The eroded mud is carried into the mouth of the rivers and settles out of the water, covers the bottom and chokes the life from the sediment.

During feeding, the gray whale appears to prefer using its right side to scour the bottom and find its food. This has been noted by several long time observers. To feed they gulp mouthfuls of mud from the bottom, then use the whiskery baleen as a filter to drain out the unwanted material. This leaves the amphipods stuck to the baleen inside their mouths. They then use their tongues to loosen the amphipods from the baleen, and swallow.

During migration and while in calving areas, gray whales eat very little, although they occasionally will eat shrimp-like mysids or small fish at the surface. Thus the blubber they add during the summer feedings must provide energy for the remainder of the year. Many whales may go without food for three to five months!

-Courtesy of www.greywhale.com

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