Whales, dolphins and porpoises are cetaceans - aquatic mammals.
There are about 80 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises with 10 of those in the waters off Oregon's coast. These include the mighty gray whale, the awe-inspiring killer whale, and the charming and intelligent bottlenose dolphin.
The most common whale off the Oregon coast is the gray whale. In addition to the approximately 200 resident gray whales that live nearly year-round off Oregon, a winter and spring migration brings about 18,000 more past our coast.
Gray whales are baleen whales (mysticetes). They grow to 50 feet in length and will weigh up to 80,000 pounds; adult females are larger than males, which is common in all baleen whales. They do not have a dorsal fin on their back but instead have a series of knuckles. These whales are mottled gray and are covered with barnacles and whale lice. Newborn calves are about 15 feet long when born and are dark gray in color.
The height of the winter migration off Oregon is usually between Christmas and New Year’s Day. The Whale Watch Center in Depoe Bay reports sightings of as many as 50 whales per day moving south to their breeding grounds in the Sea of Cortez during Whale Watch Week. Those numbers decline but remain strong through January. Generally during the winter months, whales are further offshore and more difficult to see from headlands. Oregon State Parks has a program called Whale Watching Spoken Here where volunteer observers are at most outlooks during winter and spring breaks.
Tagging studies by Oregon State University scientists show that most gray whales only stay about three weeks in the warm waters off Baja, Mexico. Then they head back to the cold, but plankton-rich waters of the North Pacific. The female gray whales with calves stay on the breeding grounds an additional month or two. Their return to northern waters in April is slower and usually closer to land. This gives whale calves a break and whale watchers their best opportunity to see the whales.
To watch the migration, it is best to pick a calm morning and find a view point that is high enough to spot the spouts. Learning good binocular technique will help spot the whales. Gaze out onto the ocean, focusing on medium distances until you see a puff of white. Then raise your binoculars while continuing to look at the place you saw the blow. This technique takes some practice, but generally works best when trying to spot whales.
When warm, moist air exhaled from the animals' lungs meets the cool air at the ocean surface, it creates the bushy column called a blow or spout. Each whale species has a distinct blow. A gray whale's blow is up to 15 feet high and is visible for about five seconds on a calm day. The whale will dive for three to six minutes, then surface for three to five blows in a row, 30 to 50 seconds apart, before diving deep for three to six minutes again. Generally in winter, the animal will move to your left (south) and during spring will be heading right (north). Sometimes you can see a muddy streak in the water that surfaces as the whale churns up the ocean floor for food. The whale's tail, or fluke, moving just below the surface can create a whale "footprint," a round, smooth spot in the water.
Gray whales are the most coastal of the baleen whales and are often found within a few miles of shore as they migrate from Alaska to Baja. Gray whales have baleen instead of teeth. To feed, they fill their vast mouths with mud from the sea bottom and strain it through their baleen to capture amphipods and other small animals. This is the only type of whale to feed in this manner. Grays are amazing in their capacity to feed in a variety of ways including taking fish or mysid shrimp directly from the water column and straining food off kelp as well.
The gray whale is an Oregon Conservation Strategy Species in the Nearshore ecoregion.
Photo by ©Corbis
Blue whales are occasionally spotted off Oregon, but usually no closer than 10 miles offshore. These whales are part of the Eastern North Pacific population that range from Alaska to Costa Rica. They migrate between feeding areas along the west coast of the United States and Canada and breeding and calving grounds off Mexico and Central America. They are thought to be among the most endangered of the great whales.
Photo by NOAA
The minke whale is one of the smallest baleen whales, growing to about 35 feet. They feed along the coast in the same area as gray whales. It is close enough in size to a gray whale that you could mistake one for the other at a distance. At close range, however, the difference is apparent.
Minkes have a dark black or gray, sleek body with a white underside. They are often recognized by surfacing snout first and a small, weak, but visible, bushy blow that is about six to 10 feet high. When diving, they do not display their flukes. On the surface, they have a quick fluid movement, which creates spray (sometimes described as a rooster tail) when traveling at high speeds. Before deep dives, they may arch and expose much of their back and body during high rolls above the surface. These whales are capable of diving for at least 15 minutes, but regularly submerge for six to 12 minutes at a time. Minke whales are often active at the surface and are commonly seen breaching.
Photo by Len2040, Flickr
Humpback whales are seen during their north and south migrations from northern waters to breeding grounds near Hawaii and also feeding offshore during the summer. Humpbacks have been documented travelling 3,000 miles between Alaska and Hawaii in as few as 36 days. They are usually five to 15 miles offshore, so they are most often seen by fishers. Humpback whales live in all major oceans from the equator to sub-polar latitudes. Humpbacks eat primarily krill and small fish and can consume 3,000 pounds of food a day.
Humpbacks grow to 60 feet in length with a stocky body, an obvious hump, a knobby head and unusually long pectoral fins, which can measure up to 15 feet. The tail, which it lifts above the surface of the water in some dives, has a wavy trailing edge and black and white markings that are unique to individuals. Scientists can identify individual whales by photographs of the underside of flukes, much like a detective can identify someone by their fingerprints.
Considered the acrobats of the sea, humpbacks often breach and slap the water with their tail and pectorals. They are also known for their beautiful "songs," which, although studied for years, are not well understood.
Photo by Amila Tennakoon, Flickr
Sperm whales inhabit all oceans of the world, and have been observed in Oregon waters from March through November. Sperm whales are usually found in deep off-shore waters so they are only occasionally seen off Oregon by fishers and birders on offshore trips.
It is the largest of the toothed whales and possesses the largest brain of any animal with an enormous head to house it. Sperm whales have 20 to 26 large conical teeth found only in their lower jaw. A mature male can grow to 52 feet long with its head representing up to one-third of its length. It is also the largest living toothed animal, feeding on giant squid, sharks, rays and fishes. Plunging to 9,800 feet for prey, it is the deepest diving mammal. Its clicking vocalization, a form of sonar, is the loudest sound produced by any animal.
The blow is a noisy, single stream that rises up to seven feet or more above the surface and points forward at a 45-degree angle since the blocky head is asymmetrical and the blow hole is located on the left side near the tip. The sperm whale's flukes are triangular and very thick. The whale lifts its flukes high out of the water as it begins a feeding dive. It has a series of ridges on the back's caudal third instead of a dorsal fin. The largest ridge was called the 'hump' by whalers, and can be mistaken for a dorsal fin because of its shape and size. In contrast to the smooth skin of most large whales, a sperm whale’s black skin is wrinkly like a prune.
Sperm whales were a prized catch for whalers in the 1800s for the rich waxy substance found in their heads called spermaceti. Spermaceti was used to make smokeless candles, soap, cosmetics and lamp fuel. In the mid-1800s, it is estimated that whalers killed perhaps 5,000 sperm whales each year.
Photo by Amila Tennakoon, Flickr
The Pacific white-sided dolphin is most abundant in the Southern California Bight in winter, but move further north, off Oregon and Washington in summer. These animals can be found from the tip of Baja to the Aleutians and the western Pacific from the Kuril Islands to Japan. They prefer deep, off-shore waters, so sightings are usually limited to recreational and commercial fishers.
The Pacific white-sided dolphin is about seven or eight feet long. It has three colors: the chin, throat and belly are creamy white; the beak, flippers, back, and dorsal fin are a dark gray, and there are light gray patches on the sides and a further light gray stripe running from above the eye to below the dorsal fin where it thickens along the tail stock. It also has a dark gray ring surrounding the eyes.
The Pacific white-sided dolphin is extremely active and mixes with many of the other north Pacific cetacean species. It readily approaches boats and rides on bow waves. Large groups are common; averaging 90 individuals, with super groups that can number more than 300. They mainly eat hake, anchovies, squid, herring, salmon and cod.
Photo by Frans Schouwenburg, Flickr
The bottlenose dolphin is the most common of the oceanic dolphins and can be found in all tropical and temperate oceans. Flipper was a bottlenose dolphin.
Their considerable intelligence and permanently-affixed smile make them a favorite of aquarium and television shows. The U.S. Navy also uses bottlenose dolphins to find mines and booby traps underwater.
Oregon is the northern extent of its range on the West Coast. They are most often seen offshore during the summer by tuna and other fishers. They are gray with light gray to white on the undersides. In size they range from six to 13 feet in length and can weigh up to 650 pounds.
Bottlenose dolphins typically live in pods of 10 to 30 individuals, but group size varies from single individuals up to more than 1,000. They mainly eat forage fish and often work as a team to harvest fish schools.
Photo by Selbe Lynn, Flickr
A thick body, small head and coloration similar to a killer whale make this dolphin easy to recognize. Dall’s porpoise is mostly black with a large white patch on the belly and flanks. The small dorsal fin is partly white and the trailing edges of the tail are frosted white. About seven feet long and weighing around 400 pounds, Dall’s live only in the north Pacific.
Dall’s are the fastest of all small cetaceans and can swim at up to 35 miles per hour, almost as fast as a killer whale. When swimming at the surface they create a characteristic "rooster tail." They often ride on the bow wave of boats, but lose interest if the boat isn’t going fast enough. They prefer deep water, so they are not often seen close to land.
Each year about 15,000 Dall’s porpoise are killed by Japanese fishers, making it the largest direct hunt of any cetacean species in the world.
Photo by Susan Adams, Flickr
Like the name suggests, harbor porpoises remain close to shore and in river estuaries and bays usually less than 650 feet deep. This makes them the most likely porpoise seen from shore. They seem more shy than their larger, more gregarious cousins, like the Dall’s porpoise or bottlenose dolphin. You won’t see them riding the bow waves of boats. They are also not as social, usually seen alone or in small groups of two or three, rarely more than five individuals.
Found throughout the temperate coastal waters of the Northern Hemisphere, harbor porpoises are the smallest of the Northern Pacific cetaceans growing to five feet and weighing up to 165 pounds. They are dark gray to black with light gray undersides. They have a blunt, rounded head and small black mouth with inward-curving lips.
They usually stay near the surface, coming up about every 25 seconds to breathe with a distinctive puffing noise that sounds like a sneeze.
Harbor porpoises eat small forage fish, like sardines and herring. They, in turn, are food for great white sharks and killer whales.
The harbor porpoise is an Oregon Conservation Strategy Species in the Nearshore ecoregion.
Photo by Michelle Bender, Flickr
Seeing killer whales off the Oregon coast is a rare treat, but whale watchers can usually count on a pod of orca’s patrolling the coast in mid-April – just in time to intercept baby gray whales. Orcas are most often seen in the ocean off Depoe Bay and Newport, but can be spotted coastwide. The first thing you are likely to see when sighting killer whales is their dorsal fin. Male orcas have a dorsal fin that can be six feet in height, juveniles and females have shorter fins. These large fins can be seen from quite a distance.
There are three distinct types of killer whales: residents, transients and offshores. Each differs in morphology, ecology, behavior and genetics. All three have overlapping ranges so any type could be seen in Oregon waters. In general, resident whales are the most studied. They are found in large pods (groups) and eat primarily fish. Transient whales have been studied in coastal waters and stay in smaller pods generally made up of less than 10 whales and eat primarily marine mammals. Offshores have the largest geographic range and are generally found at least nine miles offshore. They eat primarily fish.
Several times in recent years, orcas came into Yaquina Bay in Newport attracted by the proliferation of seals and sea lions. Some years, they linger at the edges of the bay's jetties. A few years ago, many people watched as a killer whale chased a sea lion all the way through Yaquina Bay, almost as far east as Toledo.
Killer whales usually only stay a couple of weeks, but in 2006, they lingered until the middle of July. The Whale Watch Center receives an average of 30 reports of orca sightings a year. To catch sight of Oregon’s visiting killer whales is just like spotting any whale - you need patience and a high vantage point. The Newport area has many of these, such as the lighthouse at Yaquina Bay, the Yaquina Head area, Don Davis Memorial Park in Nye Beach and nearby at Cape Foulweather. The headquarters for the Whale Watch Spoken Here program is at the seawall in Depoe Bay and is another good place to spot orcas.
Killer whales are an Oregon Conservation Strategy Species in the Nearshore ecoregion.
Photo from ODFW