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Winter whale watching on the Oregon Coast will go on

You can still watch gray whales make their annual winter migration along the Oregon coast, just don’t expect to find any rangers or volunteers on hand to help you spot the creatures.

Winter Whale Watch Week will go on for 2020, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department announced last week, but like the spring whale watching event in March, it will be a do-it-yourself experience.

Typically, park rangers and volunteers staff 24 designated whale watching locations along the Oregon coast, educating visitors about the gray whale migration and helping people spot them out in the ocean.

Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, however, there will be nobody staffed at whale watching locations this year. Additionally, the parks department’s Whale Watching Center in Depoe Bay will remain closed, as it has since March.

That will leave people on their own at popular whale watching destinations like Cape Meares near Tillamook, Boiler Bay in Depoe Bay and Shore Acres west of Coos Bay.

The parks department did not give dates for this year’s DIY version of Winter Whale Watch Week, but the event typically runs from Dec. 27 to 31, when some 20,000 gray whales are expected to pass by Oregon on their way south to warmer breeding grounds near Baja, Mexico. The gray whales will pass again in late March, as they head north to feeding grounds off the shore of Alaska.

Spotting gray whales takes patience. To find a whale, use a pair of binoculars and scan the ocean slowly, looking for the whale’s spout, which will appear as a vertical spray of mist. You can also look for a tail, called a fluke, which sometimes emerges from the water as the whale dives. If you’re really lucky, you might see the whale jump out of the water – a behavior known as breaching – though gray whales do so less frequently than some other species, like humpbacks.

Not every trip to the coast will guarantee a sighting, but the experience of seeing the huge, graceful animals in the open ocean is unforgettable.

Visiting the Oregon coast in the winter requires some additional precautions, especially when weather is stormy or the tide is high. In general, you can follow the same safety guidelines for storm watching – avoid jetties, rocky shorelines and precarious places – though hopefully the seas will be calmer as you search for spouts of traveling whales.

And be sure to maintain distance from those not in your household, and to wear a face mask when distance isn’t possible to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The parks department is advising people to avoid parks that become too crowded.

The Oregonian file photo