Oregon’s Whale of a Tradition
An excerpt from a column written by David Sarasohn, in
The Oregonian, 12/28/2014.
There are places, of course, where the holiday animal traditions run to reindeer, and others featuring cuddly bears.
Around here, we think bigger.
This weekend marks the beginning of whale watching week on the Oregon coast, which annually takes place right after Christmas, as though the whales were trying to get to a New Year’s Eve party in California. Over several months, about 20,000 gray whales, and maybe some cetacean fellow travelers, journey from Alaska to Mexico. This week, Oregonians will trek out to the coast to catch a glimpse from the shore or get a closer look from a bobbing boat.
The goal is to pick out a gray whale in a gray sea, or a spout of water in an endless ocean, and catch sight of a parade that’s been going on longer than anything with floats or marching bands. For the whale, it’s a several weeks nonstop cruise.
“It’s an opportunity to see an animal the size of a school bus,” says William Hanshumaker, Oregon Sea Grant chief scientist at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. “It’s hard not to be impressed by seeing something that large.”
Gray whales, like a lot of other legends prominent around this time, are a renewal story. “These animals are back from the brink of extinction,” says Sobel. “Thirty or forty years ago, they were nearly extinct. They were protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972…before that, crucially, the Mexican government protected the whales in their winter quarters. In 1995, the gray whale came off the endangered list.
Now, thousands of them annually swim by the Oregon coast, keeping close to shore, although probably not consciously posing for pictures. Heading south at the end and the very beginning of the year, with a heavy layer of blubber that keeps them from stopping too often to feed, they’re swimming in mixed groups, on the way to give birth in warmer waters. On the way back north in spring, the males go first, with the females working to keep the new calves between themselves and the shore.
Oregonians tend to venture outside through various climatic conditions. And they feel, it seems, a special pull from a prehistoric creature proceeding placidly down one of the world’s longest maritime migration routes, coming back from the threat of extinction to claim their (very large) place in the world.
Especially for a place that likes to think of itself as deeply connected to the natural space around it, whale watching seems a particularly fitting “New Year.” With wobbly stomach and constant uncertainty, you scan an endless horizon trying to catch a sudden glimpse of something wondrous, something bigger than yourself.
(Bring binoculars and check into an ocean-front suite at Tolovana Inn for winter whale watching!)