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It's a heart-pumping time on the coast

After spending several hours in the cold Oregon Coast rain staring at the ocean and watching for migrating gray whales to spout, David Bone can have a what-the-hell-were-you-thinking moment.

Bone could have spent the day after Christmas last December in his Medford home watching football and eating fudge. Instead, he was perched at the edge of the continent staring across the briny blue to spy and count whale spouts.

"Sometimes when you're out there, you feel stupid watching for some other animal to exhale," Bone says.

Then in the distance, a burst of white water blows 12 feet skyward, and all is right again in Bone's world.

"Even now, my heart always pumps a little bit harder every time," Bone says. "When it happens, it's exciting. It's all worth it. It's real science."

Bone will be back at it Wednesday in his 18th year as part of Oregon's Whale Watching Spoken Here effort, which helps coastal visitors spot the spouts of gray whales now heading en mass to Mexico calving grounds.

The migration represents half of Oregon's Greatest Show on Surf. The 20-ton adults and their new calves head north in the spring to reach their summer feeding grounds in the North Pacific.

As they have the previous 17 years, Bone and his wife, Bea, will be at Shore Acres State Park near Charleston, helping visitors create their own whale ESPY moments as they explain what's known about these behemoth mammals.

The 64-year-old retired Butte Falls High School teacher most relishes when teenagers get so enamored in what's unfolding that they forget to check their text messages.

"I call it the wow factor," he says. "It's when you really get their attention and they see a blow. You know they're impressed, and you showed them they don't need TV to see real things. Just go outside and look."

Shore Acres is one of 24 Whale Watching Spoken Here sites where volunteers will be on hand from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. daily from Dec. 26 through Dec. 30. The sites are considered some of the best viewpoints for spotting the roughly 18,000 whales now cruising past Oregon.

Volunteers also dole out information on migration and feeding habits and offer tips to find the tell-tale white plumes of water shooting skyward as the whales exhale.

The program has changed greatly during Bone's tenure. When he started with the program, the spotters were told that all gray whales make the migration and that they don't eat for five months at a stretch, Bone says.

Now, scientists know that whales will feed on shrimp, krill and small fish when the opportunity present itself, Bone says. Researchers also know that about 400 whales skip the migration and hang out through the winter off the Oregon Coast, he says.

Bone and Bea have spent their entire spotting careers working at Shore Acres, staying in a trailer in Charleston during whale-time.

One of the draws of volunteering at Shore Acres is that there's a cliffside, glass-walled shelter there, and it's not because he's a wimp. It allows Smith to put up various props and displays that can illustrate the story of gray whales and their migration.

"If the weather's nasty, we can still put on a dog-and-pony show and present things about the whales," he says.

Visitors come from across the world to experience the whale migration. There are always new faces, but he's seen some repeat visitors, and occasionally three generations of a family will be awed simultaneously by a few well-timed spouts.

"It's so nice to see that family unit so strong, at least for a moment," Bone says.

Many who happen upon Bone end up sharing their own whale stories, he says. And some days, Bone needs their help filling the time.

"I've gone as many as four straight days without seeing anything," he says.

But there are those magical days.

Like a decade ago, when a group of his Butte Falls High students volunteered at Shore Acres. The whale pods were so thick one day they averaged 29 sightings per hour, he says.

"You get where you're going to have a heart attack because you're so excited by seeing so much," Bone says. "It's impressive.

"The wow factor was really in effect that weekend. When we see each other, they still talk about that."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MarkCFreeman

Dave Bone - Jamie Lusch