If you have never seen a whale, it's hard to describe what you're missing. A fin sticking out through the waves and a plume of exhaled droplets? What's the big deal?
"It's just a thrill," said Morris Grover, director of the Whale Watching Center in Depoe Bay. "You made contact with something that's so unusual that you don't quite know how to respond."
During his many hours of whale watching, Grover has seen a variety of responses, ranging from smiles to screams to speechless stares. "If you see one, you need two. And you're hooked," Grover said.
The highlight of many a whale watcher is seeing a whale breech. The enormous body leaps free of the water only to crash back into the waves with a huge splash. "Scientists have never been able to determine why they do it," said Grover, but his own explanation is simple. "Because they can," he said. "If you could speak whale, you'd probably hear them scream, 'Cannonball!'"
Humpback whales are more likely to breech than gray whales. "If they have a really successful feed, you'll see them celebrating," said Grover. "They are the acrobats of the sea." Out of the water is the best time to tell the two giants apart: The white speckles on the humpback's belly and fluke are the give-away.
To help people with sightings, identification and information, the Whale Watching Center has trained hundreds of volunteers who fan out along the coastline during winter and spring when the whales migrate. Ready to answer questions, they help whale seekers understand these amazing creatures.
Every spring, 18,000 whales pass along the Washington, Oregon and California coasts to reach their feeding grounds up north in the Bering Sea. Every winter, they pass our coasts again going south, to breed and give birth in the warm waters around Baja, Calif. Volunteer Ted Hunt helps visitors with sightings and teaches them about whales at the Depoe Bay sea wall. Photo by Morris Grover."There's a lot of information about whales that's just urban legend," said Grover. The volunteers are out to change that, with accurate facts about whales, seals, sea lions and dolphins. The program has been operating for 31 years and trains 200 new volunteers every year, making Whale Watching Spoken Here one of the oldest and largest whale-watching programs in the world. Wannabee whale spotters attend a two-day weekend course and in return are asked to donate at least two days to help tourists looking for whales at any one of 26 whale spotting locations along the coast.
Cheri Bush lives in Idaho, but she has been coming out to the coast to volunteer since receiving her whale spotter training recently. "The training that they give the volunteers is really thorough," she said. What they didn't teach her is how to control the whales. She has seen disappointed visitors leave when the sea giants didn't show up for a sighting. But stay long enough, and you'll be rewarded. "I see cool stuff every day," said Bush.
The next chance to become a Whale Watching Spoken Here volunteer is the weekend of Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 14 and 15, at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Ilwaco, Wash. For more information, visit www.whalespoken.org or call the Whale Watching Center at (541) 765-3407.