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Front-Row Seat for Whale of a Show

Migration of the leviathans past Oregon coast is a 'world-class natural phenomenon' watched by a dedicated network of volunteers.

February 02, 2003|Jeff Barnard | Associated Press Writer

BROOKINGS, Ore. — Bundled up against the wind and rain, Joan Lynch leaned against the fender of her pickup truck to steady herself and trained her binoculars on the Pacific Ocean in hopes of spotting a heart-shaped spout or a flash of flukes from a passing gray whale.

"There's a spout almost all the way out," she said from her vantage high on Cape Ferrelo, and immediately conversation stopped and four pairs of binoculars focused on the horizon. "Somebody says, 'Spout!' and everybody stops talking and starts concentrating."

By an accident of nature, thousands of gray whale families migrate past the Oregon coast on their annual 5,000-mile trek from the Bering Sea to Baja California just when human families are enjoying their Christmas vacation from school. The whales return north at spring break.

For 25 years, a network of volunteers like Joan Lynch and her husband, Bob, have taken up their assigned posts on cold, rainy, wind-whipped headlands and in cozy, dry, beachfront resorts up and down the coast to take advantage of that happy coincidence to spread the word.

"It's a world-class natural phenomenon you might have missed just for lack of a knowledgeable person pointing in the right direction," said Mike Rivers from his office in Newport, where he coordinates more than 200 Whale Watching Spoken Here volunteers the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.

"You get this feeling for the excitement of the migration," he said. "They're going to Mexico. They're not bothering to stop or say hi. They're going where the water is a little bit warmer and they'll mate and have babies, like they have their whole lives. This whole phenomenon is going on that is just awesome!"

The volunteer effort was the brainchild of the late Don Giles, a Sea Grant extension specialist at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. He noticed the migration-vacation connection in research on gray whale migrations by Oregon State University professor Bruce Mate.

"It's just phenomenal how many people, usually about 40,000, the program touches in a two-week period," Mate said. "Typically, they are reaching people from most states in the union, and very typically three dozen foreign countries.

"And the [volunteers] don't just go, 'There's a whale. Duh!' Because their training includes being up to date on issues. They know about the International Whaling Convention, whaling history, how the gray whale was severely depleted at the turn of the century, and how the species has come back to pre-exploitation numbers and is now as abundant as it ever was."

The gray whale is one of just seven species taken off the Endangered Species List. That happened in 1994, 59 years after it was protected from commercial whaling.

The numbers of people staring out to sea show the natural affinity people have for whales. Mate works to build it into support for saving other speciesstill struggling for survival.

"There is a quote that says: 'We will only save what we love. We only love what we understand. And we only understand what we are taught,' " said Mate, paraphrasing a popular quotation attributed to Senegalese agricultural official Baba Dioum.

"Part of that affection, I think, is related to a knowledge almost everyone has that human beings have driven these populations down to a level of endangerment. I think we have a sense of moral responsibility to put these animals in a more favored state which will facilitate their recovery."

Besides training volunteers in Oregon, each spring Mate leads 30 whale lovers to Baja California lagoons where gray whales calve and breed, offering a closer look than the one from a windblown bluff in Oregon.

"Mothers do this regularly -- they allow you to come up to them in the boat and allow you to touch them, then they go over and get their calf and push it toward the boat to introduce it," Mate said of his trips to Baja. "That's an emotional experience."

On Cape Ferrelo, the Lynches ignored the wind and rain as they trained their binoculars on the ocean for the telltale heart-shaped spout, formed because gray whales have two blow holes. As many as 30 whales per hour swim by, but it is tough to spot them, especially in foul weather.

Both are retired -- he's the former sheriff of Hood River County and she's a former teacher. They are in their 13th season as whale-watching volunteers and live out of their fifth-wheel trailer.

""They're big and they're beautiful," Bob Lynch said of the whales that keep him coming back.

"And there's a mystery to them," added his wife. "There's so much we don't know."

"One o'clock, there's a blow!" interjected Linda Carpenter, a computer technician vacationing from Foster City, Calif. All talking stopped and all binoculars were trained on the ocean.

"Sleep in, watch the whales, then take rest of the day off," Carpenter said of her vacation routine. "When you see them come out of the water and breech, it makes it worthwhile for a couple hours of doing nothing."

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