Ever since her 3-year-old eyes spied Free Willy's tricks on the silver screen, Monica Szczepanski's young brain has been fixated on everything whales.

Ever since her 3-year-old eyes spied Free Willy's tricks on the silver screen, Monica Szczepanski's young brain has been fixated on everything whales.

The movie tricks fired her imagination until now, five years later, 8-year-old Monica is boring the socks off her second-grade classmates in a Salem suburb about what lies beneath the spouts of water seemingly springing from the Pacific off Oregon beaches this week.

"Under that spout is a whale, a big ol' gray whale as long as a school bus," Monica says. "Whenever I go to the beach, I look for whales."

Monica found a far more interested group among adults Wednesday when the budding "whale-ologist" shared her passion with visitors to the Inn at Spanish Head in Lincoln City.

Monica became the youngest "Whale Watching Spoken Here" volunteer to hold court in one of 28 sites along the coast where volunteers like her help visitors spot migrating whales and teach them about the rare mammal.

Gray whales are in the midst of their 12,000-mile migration from the calm waters off southern Mexico to summer feeding grounds off Alaska. There, they will use their sheets of baleen to filter-feed mainly on mysid shrimp.

That's all part of Monica's presentation, as well as a few other nuggets in her Whale Watch binder she made.

"Oh, and the white stuff on them are barnacles," she says.

Monica is a rarity among volunteers, whose ages range from 8 to 80 this year, says Morris Grover, event coordinator at the Oregon Parks Department's Whale Watching Center in Depoe Bay.

In the past, youngsters occasionally have accompanied their parents to Whale Watch trainings and helped during Whale Watching Spoken Here events, but none has performed solo like Monica, Grover says.

"She's doing an amazing job, and she's a wealth of information," Grover says. "Monica's really something."

Monica comes by it honestly.

Her 16-year-old sister volunteers at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport and another sister last year took the whale-watching training to volunteer with the parks department, says Guin Szczepanski, the girls' mother.

The family at first believed Monica was too young to sit through two days of training, Szczepanski says.

"That's all we heard all last year since then, 'I want to do the training,' " Mom says.

Her father, Ziggy, took Monica to a training last December, culminating with Monica helping answer whale-watching questions for coastal visitors over the recent Christmas vacation.

"She's no Einstein, but she shared what she knew," he says. "She called the people her customers."

For three decades, coastal visitors have been accustomed to volunteers helping them spy whale spouts from the first Saturday of Spring Break through the following Saturday.

In the first three days this year, 4,754 people were helped by volunteers to spot 736 migrating whales, Grover says. That's a slight increase in the number of people and a slight decrease in whale sightings from the first three days of last year's effort, Grover says.

Grover said 2,755 sightings occurred during last year's spring watch week.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.