It was chilly and a little foggy that morning, we were going on a whale watching trip with Whale Research Eco Excursions in Depoe Bay. We had only seen whales blow in the distance and had never had the opportunity to see one up close. The expectation was to see gray whales, since that is what usually frequents the area this time of year, but we were in for a surprise.
We arrived early along with the others that were going on the same excursion and waited at the Whale, Sea Life, and Shark Museum. It was small, yet very educational and had a lot of fascinating things to see. We were told there were no guarantees, but they thought we had a good chance of seeing some whales.
After waiting a short while, we all gathered in a small theater to watch an informative video about whales and pre-boarding. The story about how Carrie’s Research and Eco Excursions started is a great story if you’re ever in the area. At the end of the video, it was almost like it was rehearsed, and we were on a reality show. Carrie came in and told us we were in for a treat. “The orcas are in and feeding on a seal,” she said this as if it were a once in a lifetime event. “You’re really lucky. This is a rare occasion!”
You could feel the excitement in the air as we all put our life jackets on and headed down to the marina in a rush. The boats were Navy Seal Zodiacs (inflatable and raft-like sides) that seat six. I think if I would have known we were going out on the open ocean in one of those beforehand, I might have been a little freaked out.
We all picked our seats and took off. We were so thrilled that I don’t think any of us cared what we were on. (I have to say, it did feel super safe, and Carrie was an excellent captain.) When we went under the bridge out into the open water, it was such an amazing feeling. You see that kind of thing in movies and yes, it really feels like that. We went fast once we got out into the open so that we could get out to the orcas in time.
We looked for the whales as we went further and further from the shore. Being on the open ocean and that low to the water is a very surreal feeling. You really get the vastness of being out there in one of these boats. We looked around in all directions, going up and down with the large swells. Kida, the ‘whale tracking’ golden retriever was on our boat. She was definitely focused and on the job. She knew exactly what she had come here for, and I’m pretty sure she didn’t want to go home until she found the whales.
She was a great dog. When she caught their scent, she raised one ear and barked. We held her back as Carrie said she can get so excited when she smells them that she may try to jump in.
Kida often helps find the whales on the open water. Whales can be difficult to track, as some are shy and can move away quickly among the swells. The gray whales, however, have come to recognize Carrie’s boats and will actually come towards them because she has been researching them for so long. She has named many of the ones that she sees year after year.
We were a few miles out when we spotted our first orca. Soon, there were about six all around us. They arched their backs out of the water and blew eight foot columns of steamy breath into the air. When they were nearby, it was a thunderous, deep bellowing sound…a sound we will never forget. The mist cloud would hang in the air as they did this, and you could see the mist clouds all around and on the horizon over the swells. We were so close I could actually see the blowhole of the largest male; who was massive.
A multitude of sea birds circled around the whales and occasionally dived down for scraps of anything they could find.
We got to see mama orcas with their babies in tow. The babies were so new that the white part around their eyes and stomachs were still pink. Their color meant they were about two weeks old. Their blubber layer was thin in that area which caused it to be pink like jaundice in human babies. They were so frisky, breaching many, many times as they put on a show for us. (Breaching is where the whale comes almost completely out of the water and splashes on its side.) The babies were so cute and playful, they would slap their tails on the water, mimicking their mamas.
The males were huge. I couldn’t believe how large they were when they came near the boat. Their back fins alone stood six-feet high! It is hard to appreciate the scope of these animals on TV or in photos on the internet.
The mamas and babies came pretty close to us, and Carrie motored down when they were near us to ensure no injuries to them. It was so amazing to see whales up close after only ever seeing them in the distance through the years.
As we watched, I heard my little boy and husband exclaim “WOW” as everyone but them missed a large adult male fully breach three times! It is a rare sight to see an adult do this and is the most sought after moment in whale watching. I caught the very end of the last one. I wish I could’ve captured it on film because it was so incredible to see. We saw many flukes as they gracefully dove down to the depths repeatedly. They will usually blow three times before a deep dive.
They swam in all directions around us. Some even went underneath our boat but not too close. I had never been on the ocean before, and I had yet to get sea sick, but when we sat still for long periods of time, it did kind of make a couple other people and myself a little woozy. I recommend not going on an empty stomach as sometimes that can cause sea sickness in some people. It definitely wasn’t too bad, just a little uncomfortable but so worth the experience!
The other boats had to go back in, and Carrie asked us if we wanted to stay longer so she could track the pod while they went to pick up another group. Of course we were all thrilled and said, “YES!” We got to stay out for another hour, and I’m so glad we did, because this was when they moved in closer to us, and I got the best photos of the trip.
By the end, we counted 13 whales! The researchers called it a super pod as we were heading back to shore. Carrie said she had waited 30 years for a day like that.
We passed by a Whistle Buoy that had a Steller Sea Lion on it, obviously hiding from the orcas. When looking back towards Depoe Bay, the fog bank had settled over the hills making everything feel like a dream. None of us wanted the trip to end because we didn’t know when we would ever have an experience like that again. It was absolutely one of the best days of my life, and I will never forget it.
If you want to take the trip of a lifetime, go on one of Carrie’s excursions, and I’m sure you will not be let down. Make this your year to travel and do all of the things you want to do; don’t let these things pass you by.