30 Dec

Oregon has a whale of a Christmas tradition

There are places, of course, where the holiday animal traditions run to reindeer, and others featuring cuddly bears. There is the typical farmyard menagerie of a manger, and holiday cards featuring dogs in sweaters that leave even the dogs looking embarrassed.

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 grey 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.

Last year, reports Oregon park ranger Evan Sobel at the Whale Center at Depoe Bay (whalespoken.org), more than 10,000 watchers showed up at 24 sites from Ecola State Park to Brookings. There’s another whale watching week at the end of March, when the whales are coming back north and the weather is better, but more people show up in stormy December.

Oregonians.

The goal is to pick out a grey whale in a grey 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 (including sleep) cruise; from a boat or even from the shore, it can be unsettling to the stomach – especially in December – but exhilarating to the spirit.

“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.”

People have felt that impact for a long time. The symbol of America may be an eagle, but the great American novel is about a whale.

Grey whales, like a lot of other legends prominent around this time, are a renewal story. The Atlantic grey whale population is essentially extinct; the western Pacific population has been reduced to a small band working its way up and down the coasts of Siberia and Korea. For a while, it looked like the eastern Pacific population would join them.

“These animals are back from the brink of extinction,” says Sobel. “Thirty or forty years ago, they were nearly extinct.”

Unlike, say, killer whales, grey whales don’t generally endure in captivity. They’re too large, and too uncooperative.

They were protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, but Hanshumaker points out that before that, crucially, the Mexican government protected the whales in their winter quarters. In 1995, the grey 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.

As with any group passing by, there are some who just decide to stay around Oregon permanently, and have been identified by the people who study them. “It seems to be the same individuals,” says Hanshumaker about the Oregon coast’s year-round whale population. “They recognize they can make a living here.”

The roaring fire inside is less a December definition around here than in some other places; Oregonians tend to venture outside through various climatic conditions, heading east for snow or west for water at times when others might be content with dry couches and holiday TV specials. 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 December holiday tradition: With wobbly stomach and constant uncertainty, you scan an endless horizon trying to catch a sudden glimpse of something wondrous, something bigger than yourself.

As holiday customs go, it’s way better than a dog in a sweater.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 12/28/14.