Whale-watching tours are not easy to find in the Grays Harbor area.
Neither, sometimes, are whales.
But that’s all right. If you look at these tours more as general sightseeing opportunities, you’ll be able to enjoy a couple of hours on the water with a knowledgeable skipper.
We were able to find only one Grays Harbor company that offers the opportunity to see gray whales up close: Ocean Sportfishing Charters, based in Westport. As the name suggests, they focus mostly on fishing; but during the spring migration season (generally, March and April), they also conduct two-hour whale-watching tours.
Capt. Don Davenport has been taking folks out on his boat, the Ranger, since 2003. He retired after 20 years in the U.S. Air Force and then worked on computers for a while, but decided he needed “something more like flying.” He found what he was looking for on the sea, and now is owner/operator of Ocean Sportfishing.
At the beginning of each tour, after the standard safety instructions, Davenport briefs his passengers on what to expect. It’s exceedingly rare for gray whales to leap majestically out of the water; and when they come to the surface for air, they tend not to remain visible for long. So the best way to spot one, he advises, is to watch for the “blow.”
Whales spout water or condensation 6 to 12 feet into the air as they exhale. And once they take a breath, it will be several minutes before they come up for another. They travel at about 6 miles per hour, so the best strategy is to keep an eye ahead of the last blow.
There’s always plenty to see on these trips, even when the whales are being uncooperative. During a mid-April outing, the seasoned skipper also called out a variety of wildlife: a pair of porpoises playing near the Ocean Shores jetty, a pair of bald eagles on the beach at Damon Point, the occasional harbor seal peeking out of the waves.
He also circled one area a couple of times to ensure everyone on board could lay eyes on the one and only gray whale spotted on that trip.
“We had a fun sightseeing tour, even though we only caught a glimpse of a whale,” said Jay Evans, who’d brought his family from Woodinville, north of Seattle.
“The boat ride was fun,” agreed his wife, Laura, “and it was great to see so much other wildlife like porpoises, loons, sea lions and eagles.”
Research biologist John Calambokidis, a co-founder of Cascadia Research in Olympia, said the odds of spotting whales on any given day during their migration might be affected by weather and any number of other factors — including sheer luck.
“I have not heard of anything particularly unusual for this year,” he said in late April. “The current numbers for the season are above average.”
Why aren’t there more whale-watching charters on the Harbor?
“There’s more money in fishing,” said Angila McCluskey, office manager at Ocean Sportfishing. She estimated an extremely lopsided 95-5 revenue split.
Virginia Esty, who works with McCluskey, also noted that more stringent U.S. Coast Guard safety rules apply to whale-watching tour operators, including a greater height requirement for the boat’s railings.
Still, they offer that service during the season because the demand is so great. During a recent visit to the office, several people walked in off the street to inquire about it.
There are always folks clamoring to take the chance, however slim, to experience the unique thrill of seeing a whale up close.
Ocean Sportfishing Charters
2549 Westhaven Drive, Westport 98595
Whale-watching tours: March through part of May, twice a day (weather permitting)
Prices: $45 adults, $35 children under 14
Gray whales migrate regularly between the Arctic (for summer feeding) and Southern California and Mexico (for winter breeding). They can be seen heading south along the Washington coast in December and January, then back north from March into May.
For week-to-week updates on whale numbers along the Pacific Coast, visit the American Cetacean Society’s Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project page: www.acs-la.org/GWCensus.htm.