Each year, as spring starts, over 20,000 gray whales migrate north, passing within a mile of the beaches of the Pacific Northwest. For many, this mass migration is unknown, despite it being one of the largest mammal migrations in the west. Swimming north from March though May, the gray whales are a sight to be seen, and the event is one of the most underrated experiences you can have along the Washington coast. While many of the organized events for whale watching occur in late March and early April, a trip to the coast through the month of May could have you yelling “Thar She Blows!” as you see a spout or a tail break the surface.
Gray whales were once uncommon to see along our coast, almost driven to extinction in the 1850’s due to hunting. However, once they were protected in 1946 by the International Whaling Commission, they had recovered enough by 1993 that they were removed from the endangered species list and became very visible off the Washington coast. Still a protected species, these 40+ foot long, 60,000+ pound mammals have a population of around 23,000 with the majority swimming right off of our shoreline. Staying underwater for up to 15 minutes, a patient set of eyes will be able to spot these majestic creatures with ease as they swim close to dry land.
To best get started on your day of whale watching, a trip to Westport is in order. Full of whale facts and history, the Westport Maritime Museum is a great place to learn more about the migration. The museum also has a complete whale skeleton on display, as well as other incredible cultural, historical and nautical-themed exhibits.
Once you have seen the sights at the museum, your best bet to see a gray whale is with the tours offered by Ocean Sportfishing Charters in Westport. The tours get you up close and personal with the massive whales. Close enough to smell their spray, Ocean Sportfishing Charters offers whale watching tours through May, depending on tides and how well the whale season is going. During the peak whale migration, the crew at Ocean Sportfishing Charters takes guests out on their family-friendly tours seven days a week, seeing whales on 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.”
While the whale watching season and boat tours may begin to slow once April winds down, don’t despair. Whales are continuing to swim along our shores during the month of May and can be seen along the aptly named Whale Trail. For any of the following destinations, you’ll need to bring binoculars or a spotting scope and plan on heading out during clear weather. For these destinations, you’ll need to scan the horizon and look for spouts in the distance. Typically, during the Spring migration, gray whales will swim within a mile of the shore, spouting every 5-15 minutes. These spouts can be 10 to 12 feet high and are produced when the whale exhales air from its lungs. The white puff of water is hard to miss against the blue of the water.
The best places to see whales along the Whale Trail are at one of the seven designated viewing areas along the Washington coast. For most, the closest destination to see a gray whale swimming in the mighty Pacific is found along the elevated bluffs at Kalaloch Beach. Along 101 or at the Olympic National Park campgrounds and pull offs, you stand a great chance to see a spout off in the distance. The ranger station and resort at Olympic National Park’s Kalaloch region also has some information, including occasional talks from NPS rangers about the migration and whales. Contact the park to discover the locations and dates of these talks.
Further north, whales can occasionally be spotted offshore from the beaches of LaPush, as well as Olympic National Park’s Shi Shi Beach and Cape Alava. When watching in May, you will probably need to drive to the the Makah Reservation at Neah Bay. The Makah have one of the best exhibits in the state on local tribes, whales, whaling and the connection between whales and local survival found at the Makah Museum. Sure, the drive to get here might be a bit long, but combining a trip here with a stop at Cape Flattery will almost guarantee you a whale sighting off in the distance.