By Douglas Scott
The coming of spring marks many events in Grays Harbor. As the gray skies become less frequent, flowers start bloom, and hillsides dry out, the waters of the Pacific Ocean and Grays Harbor welcome the return of the gray whales.
During the months of March and April, the Washington coast becomes a hotbed of whale action, marking the annual migration past our shores for the estimated 18,000 Gray Whales that make the journey up and down the Pacific Coast each year. Passing by within one-half mile of the breaking waves, up to 30 whales an hour swim by the coastal communities during the peak of the migration.
This event continues to be celebrated by the local tribal nations, and is now becoming a popular event in communities around the coast.
Each spring, like clockwork, gray whales swim to Alaska after returning from their breeding grounds in Baja California. As they work their way north with newly-born whale calfs in tow, they follow what is known as the Whale Trail, which is a 12,000 mile round trip that follows the gray whale migration.
Locally, the Whale Trail’s main areas of emphasis are around the northern Olympic Coast, from Kalaloch Beach to Cape Flattery. In the months of March, April and early May, the mass migration of Gray Whales brings tourists and locals out in droves, hoping to catch a glimpse of these massive mammals. Weighing up to 80,000 pounds and measuring at 49 feet in length, gray whales can live up to 70 years, feeding mostly on amphipods, a tiny shrimp-like animal that lives in the sediment of the ocean floor. Thanks to their large size, gray whales can be seen from the numerous vantage points along the Whale Trail, which are marked by signs and informational displays.
For those curious to see a whale and to welcome them in the ways of the Quileute Tribe, the town of LaPush is holding its annual Welcoming the Whales ceremony on April 1, 2016. The ceremony focuses on keeping tribal traditions alive, while giving visitors a chance to hear traditional stories and sacred songs, watch traditional dances, dine on local cuisine, and catch a glimpse of the gray whales. In 2014, during the ceremony on First Beach, a gray whale swan within 100 feet of the shore, as if it knew its return was being honored. If you are looking for an incredible event that connects nature, humanity, and history, the Welcoming the Whales ceremony in LaPush needs to be experienced.
Closer to Grays Harbor, opportunities to see gray whales are quite prevalent. While you can stand on a bluff or along the shore with a spotting scope or pair of binoculars, the best bet to see a gray whale is with the tours offered by Ocean Sportfishing Charters in Westport. Costing just $45 for an adult and $35 for kids under 14, the two-and-a-half hour tours get you up close and personal with the massive whales. Close enough to smell their spray, Ocean Sportfishing Charters offers whale watching tours March through May. Seven days a week, the crew at Ocean Sportfishing Charters takes guests out on their family-friendly tours, seeing whales almost every single trip. Working with fishing boats and other sources, the guides know where the whales are at all times, making for an incredible day off of Westport.
Janell Howarth, a long time employee and amateur whale watcher with Ocean Sportfishing Charters, encourages everyone to experience the whale watching tour out of Westport. “This is a great trip for kids, as we see a whale nearly every time we head out,” Janell said. “Our Captains and deckhands are well-versed on whale watching, and since these tours occur during mating season, be prepared to see some interesting stuff.”
Whether you drive along the Whale Trail, spend a day watching the ceremony at LaPush or book a tour with the crew at Ocean Sportfishing Charters, the return of the whales marks a fantastic time to explore the beaches and look into the waters of the Pacific Ocean. As the rain ceases and the temperature increases, the coast along Grays Harbor and the rest of the Olympic Peninsula becomes a hotbed for whale activity.
With the return of migratory shorebirds, hundreds of miles of hiking and whale watching, events like this are yet another fantastic reason to visit, explore and live in Grays Harbor County.