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 were so excited! We had only seen whales blow in the distance, and had never had the opportunity to see one up close. We were expecting to see gray whales, since that is what usually frequents the area that time of year. We had no idea what to expect, if anything at all. We arrived early along with others that were going on the same excursion. We got to look around the Whale, Sea Life, and Shark Museum while we waited. 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 to see some whales. After waiting a short while, we all gathered in a small theater to watch an informative video about whales and pre-boarding. At the end of the video, it was almost like it was rehearsed, Carrie came in enthusiastically and said “we are really in for a treat! The orcas are in and feeding on a seal!” She said this was a very rare occasion and that we were very lucky.
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 6. I think if I would have known beforehand that we were going out on the open ocean in such a small boat, I might have been a little freaked out. We all picked our seats and cast off. Once we were out on the water, we were all 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 into the ocean, leaving land behind, it was such an amazing feeling. You see that kind of thing in movies and yes, it really feels like that. We went pretty fast once we got out in the open so that we could get out to the orcas in time.
We were looking 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 were looking 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, we held her back as Carrie said she can get so excited when she smells them that she may try to jump in. When she catches their scent, she raises one ear and barks. Kida, often helps find the whales on the open water. They 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 her 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. There were about 6 of them all around us as we watched them arch their backs out of the water and blow 8 ft columns of steamy breath into the air. When they were nearby, it was a thunderous, deep bellowing sound. It was an unforgettable experience. The mist cloud would hang in the air as they did this and you could see them all around and on the horizon over the swells. We were so close I could actually see the blowhole of the largest male, he was massive. There were a multitude of sea birds all over circling around the whales and occasionally diving 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 it’s side. The babies were so cute and playful, they would slap their tails on the water just like their mamas. The males were huge. I couldn’t even believe how large they were when they came near the boat. Their back fin alone stood 6 feet high! You don’t get to see the scope of these animals on TV or in photos on the internet. The mamas and babies came pretty close to us, 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 they were the only ones to see a large adult male fully breach three times in a row! 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 time, I wish I could’ve captured that on film because it was so incredible to see. We saw many flukes as they gracefully dove down to the depths of the ocean repeatedly. They will usually blow three times before a deep dive. They were swimming in all directions around us. Some even went underneath our boat, but not too close.
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! I heard the researchers call it a super pod as we were heading back to shore. Carrie said she had waited 30 years for a day like that, how amazing that we could be a part of it. We passed by a Whistle Buoy that had a Steller Sea Lion on it, obviously trying to escape 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 this 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 in 2017 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. Time goes so fast and all I want is to build up a lifetime of memories to look back on one day.