Gray whales migrate down the Oregon Coast from mid-December through January. They’re on their way to Mexico’s Baja Peninsula to breed and give birth before returning to the Bering Sea for the summer. The spring return occurs mostly from mid-March through May although about 200 wait until summer and travel very close to shore. Because 500+ whales travel 2 to 8 miles offshore during their winter migration, they’re hard to spot. Because they’re traveling with babies who need warmer water in spring and summer, they’re easier to see from land. Whalers called the Grays “Devil Fish” because they fought so hard to protect their migrating young.
Like whales, Ruth & I just happened to be traveling along the Oregon Coast during 2014’s 5-day Winter Whale Watch Week, December 27 through the 31st. And we just happened to visit the Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC), which has been displaying the results of oceanographic research since 1965, when whales was their focus. I asked the staff lots of questions, two of which were, “Where’s the best place to see whales from land and how are they best spotted?” The answers were Cape Perpetua and look for the blows which rise 12 feet in the air as Grays expel air. We stopped at the Cape but, alas, saw none.
Oregon State University operates HMSC on Marine Science Drive in Newport, Oregon, so 2 things happen. Visitors hear much about the ocean and local estuaries, and what they see change rapidly to match current research. The exhibits, which have observable appeal to children, are interactive, hands-on, and very educational. All of the children sharing HMSC with Ruth and me were clustered around the tide pool wave tank happily getting wet.
Gina, the woman in charge that day, kept apologizing to me that there was no octopus. 99% of the time there’s one in the tank and a crowd gathers for its public feeding. For 10 to 15 minutes, visitors watch the temporary resident eat shellfish and shrimp that it first liquifies and then slurps in with a rasping tongue. Observers can poke fingers into the tank to let the octopus taste them. Gina loves octopi and told me that they have personalities and like to be touched and cuddled when in a good mood. I later learned that there are about 100 species of octopi and many have the intelligence of cats. Hatfield releases its star back to a tide pool after a few months in the tank to reproduce and die. Their lifespan, should they survive predators, is 3 to 5 years.
About 200 scientists are doing research at Hatfield, which was named for Oregon Governor and U.S. Senator Mark O. Hatfield in 1983, at any given time. They track sea-going mammals, study fish behavior, prepare for tsunamis, etc. Its researchers were in charge when a Japanese dock torn loose by the killer Tsunami in 2011 washed up on Oregon’s Agate Beach in 2012. The main threat was invasive species. I was fascinated by their current display of wave energy devices.
Now opened for winter hours from 10 am to 4 pm, Thursday through Monday, HMSC’s admission is by donation.