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Whale of a good time

Carrie Newell recently spent a winter weekend with her friends. Eight of them, to be exact. They were traveling south, and Newell met up with them — four miles out in the ocean.

Her friends are gray whales, and on this day, she twice hooked up with the creatures migrating from their summer feeding grounds in Alaska to their warm-water breeding and calving lagoons in Mexico.

Newell, a marine biologist, is among the region's authorities on whales. She teaches courses at Lane Community College in Eugene during the week and spends weekends operating out of Depoe Bay, running her sea life museum, providing whale-watching tours and studying the great mammals.

When school's out, she's usually on the ocean, making as many as 12 excursions a day.

In January, Newell conducted a training session at Harris Beach in Brookings for volunteers who work during two designated whale-watching weeks each year. The spring week, when the whales are heading north, is March 22-29.

Volunteers provide sighting tips and facts about whales at 24 viewing sites along the Oregon Coast. During the winter week from Dec. 26-31, 10,872 people visited the two-dozen viewing sites and spotted 1,648 whales.

"Here we have these creatures 40 to 45 feet long that are so mysterious," said Newell, who once lent her expertise to a Jean-Michel Cousteau documentary. "They're big and mysterious. This is not something you can go to a zoo or an aquarium to see."

Melinna Faw, a ranger with the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, works out of the Whale Watching Center in Depoe Bay.

She doesn't tire of seeing whales pass by.

"From the first day of seeing one to just yesterday seeing one," she said, "you get chills, and the hair stands up on the back of your neck. I almost get a little teary-eyed."

In the big picture, it's a multi-billion-dollar industry.

On an individual level, it can be a moving experience.

"Every time, it's amazing," said Faw, "like seeing it for the first time."

Whale watching first became an organized activity from the shores of San Diego in the early 1950s. In the middle of that decade, the first water-based excursions began.

It has since seen great growth. A study five years ago estimated that 13 million people went whale watching in 2008, generating $2.1 billion in tourism revenue worldwide.

Southern Oregonians interested in seeing whales need only jump in their cars and drive to the coast.

Most of the roughly 20,000 migrating whales complete the 12,000-mile round trip back to Alaska. About 200 cut short their travel to take advantage of feeding grounds from Northern California to south Vancouver Island.

Rachel Flescher, who works for Tidewind Sportfishing in Brookings, said some of these "resident" whales stay nearby.

"We have a little family of whales hanging out all year," she said, guessing there are four to five in the group near Lone Ranch Beach, north of Harris Beach. "They're just out there playing."

Depoe Bay is the hub for whale watching in Oregon. The Whale Watching Center is one of 20 designated observation posts between the Chukchi Sea off Alaska and the southernmost lagoons on Mexico's Baja California coast.

From about mid-December to mid-February, the whales can be seen migrating south.

From late February to the end of May, the males and non-breeding females head back to Alaska.

From the end of April to the end of May, and sometimes into June, the moms and calves trek north.

"Sometimes they're right next to the shore," said Newell of the moms and babies, who aren't weaned until they get to Alaska. "I've had them in 10 feet of water."

Their pace varies. In December, when the goal is to get to the breeding grounds, "They're booking," said Faw. "They have tunnel vision and are trying to get down there as fast as they can."

Not all are in such a rush, and slow ones heading south cross paths with the northern migration.

"These are the stragglers," said Faw. "We joke around and call them the slacker teenagers, but in whale years."

Male and female whales reach sexual maturity at about age 8. The youngest ones "aren't in much of a hurry," she said.

Depoe Bay has a group of resident whales that Newell has studied for 20 years. It is now 75 strong. She has names for all and has determined ages and genders while documenting their behavior.

Scarback is the most famous of the residents. She has a large chunk of blubber missing from her back, and it's filled with orange whale lice, making her quite distinctive.

It's believed the scar is the result of an exploding harpoon that hit her in the 1980s.

"I've seen her every year for 20 years," said Newell. "She's had six calves since I've seen her, and what's cool is, now her calves are also coming back."

One is Milky Way. Newell saw the 8-year-old chasing a female for the first time this year.

"Now I know he's a male," she said.

Milky Way survived an attack by killer whales, she said, as evidenced by tooth rakes on his tail.

Newell names the whales based on unique patterns on their dorsal humps. A favorite of hers is Eagle Eye, who has what looks like an eye on her left hump.

The whales play with the boats and "feed on enthusiasm just like people do."

Newell relishes the opportunity, through her museum, to teach about their individualism and personalities.

"They're pretty amazing," said Newell. "I do get sad when I see something happen. One of our whales, Shamrock, died a couple years ago and washed up on a beach in Southern Oregon."

The chance that shoreline whale watchers will see them depends largely on the conditions.

Any rocky headland that juts into the ocean is a good vantage point. A clear day and calm seas provide the best opportunity.

Whales are usually between one to five miles out. On a clear day, it's 10 miles to the horizon, said Faw.

"It's good to be able to gauge the horizon to determine what five miles is," she added.

Once whales are spotted, it helps to know their patterns.

They will surface and powerfully force air through their blowholes — gray whales have two — creating a vapor as the warm, moist air in their lungs meets cooler surface air.

When whales heading south surface, they blow three to five times, then dive deep for five minutes or longer.

Those migrating north, and summer residents, make shorter dives and generally have a sequence of three blows. Faw has timed the spouts consistently in the 45-second range.

"It's hard waiting that three to five minutes," she said. "Sometimes it feels like 20. The beauty is, they will keep that sequence and you can definitely track them — if you know whether they're going north or south."

Whale watching in Oregon isn't an exact science, particularly from land.

The success rate is bound to be better on a boat. Many sportfishing outfits, such as Tidewind, offer whale watching in the afternoon once fishing is done.

"They're out there fishing every day," said Flescher, "so they know when the whales are out there."

Tidewind owner Kyle Aubin "is pretty good about chasing them down," she said. "He enjoys it."

And he's probably made a few friends of his own.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479 or ttrower@mailtribune.com.

Scarback is one of the most famous whales on the Oregon Coast.