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Whales are coming

NEWPORT — Whale experts are ready and waiting for a week of wild weather to relent in time for Oregon's annual Winter Watch.

Approximately 19,000 gray whales will skirt the Oregon coast over the next few weeks on their annual migration to Mexico. In its 31st year, the state's Whale Watching Spoken Here program will staff 28 sites along the coast with trained spotters between Friday and Jan. 1.

"This time of year is the highest concentration of whales," says Morris Grover, director of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department's Whale Watching Center in Depoe Bay.

"They're in a hurry to get down there in the winter."

Traveling in groups of up to 20, gray whales stick close together on their winter migration, cruising about five to eight miles off shore, Grover says. Sixteen of the 70,000-pound behemoths were spotted so far this month from the Whale Watching Center. The number is lower than previous years, Grover says, because storms have obscured ocean views.

The weather may not be cooperating, but whale enthusiasts are lining up to staff this year's Winter Watch Week, Grover says. Organizers of the most recent training workshop had to turn away would-be volunteers, he adds.

"Suddenly, people are more interested," Grover says, adding that celebrities' advocacy and the Discovery Channel's "Whale Wars" may have renewed interest in the planet's largest creatures.

Gray whales spend about one month of the year in lagoons off Mexico's Baja Peninsula. Calves are born there, and adult whales mate before herds head north again, returning to feeding grounds in the Arctic Ocean. Scooping up sea-floor sediment in their mouths, gray whales consume small crustaceans called amphipods by filtering mud through baleen plates that line the mammal's upper jaw.

The "famous Oregon upwelling" — cold, nutrient-rich water — entices an average of 200 whales to cut their migration short and feed along the coast throughout the summer, Grover says. This year's food supply was ample, he says, particularly in and around kelp beds where small, shrimp-like creatures called mysid congregate. More than 850 whales were spotted from the Whale Watching Center from July through September.

"This summer we saw a lot of new whales — whales we hadn't seen before," Grover says.

Favorable weather, Grover says, was a factor in the center's record total of 2,398 whales spotted this year, compared with 1,846 last year and 1,423 in 2006. More than 9,900 visitors spied 618 grays during the 2007 Winter Watch Week, with the prime location at Face Rock State Scenic Viewpoint in Bandon, where 141 whales were sighted.

"It could have been that Face Rock was just the lucky spot ... It could have been we just had a good spotter," Grover says.

"If you're on a cape that sticks out, that's your best shot."

Volunteers will return to watch points March 21-28 to catch gray whales returning to Alaska. In the spring, whales are more spread out but stay only one to three miles offshore, Grover says. Last year's Spring Watch Week hosted 13,387 visitors who saw 2,200 whales.

Space is still available in the next Whale Watching Spoken Here training workshop, planned for Jan. 17-18 at Oregon Institute of Marine Biology in Charleston. For more information, call the Whale Watching Center at 541-765-3304, e-mail morris.grover@state.or.us or see the Web site www.whalespoken.org.

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.