Winter 'Whale Watch Week' begins Sunday

Winter 'Whale Watch Week' begins Sunday
A gray whale dives off the Southern California coast near the Palos Verdes Peninsula in this Jan. 16, 2008, file photo.

PORTLAND, Ore. – Thousands of Gray Whales are already on their fast track south, passing the Oregon coast just before Oregon's annual Whale Watch Week begins Dec. 26.

The migrating whales can be seen off the Oregon coast as they head from their summer feeding areas (in Bering and Chukchi seas off Alaska) to breeding and calving lagoons along the Baja Coast south of California. The first whales already have been seen off the California coast, "courting and mating," reports's Gray Whale migration page. Next stops are "the warm lagoons of Mexico, good nurseries for this season's new baby whales."

Whale watchers along the Oregon and Washington coast still could catch some of the migration stragglers. As such, trained volunteers are at 26 "Whale Watching Spoken Here" sites from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. daily – to help visitors spot as many as possible – through Jan. 1, 2011.

The Oregon Parks and Recreation Department's Whale Watching Center in Depoe Bay also will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.

Marine mammal experts estimate that the migration now includes 18,000 whales. Since most of the whales are traveling three to five miles offshore, visitors are advised to bring binoculars.

Coastal+map%2C+courtesy+of+the+Oregon+Parks+and+Recreation+Department.Whale watch week begins the same day that environmentalists expressed concern that plans to expand Navy testing off the Washington, Oregon and California coasts will pose a danger for these and other whales.

A proposal for increased sailor training and weapons testing, as well as underwater training minefield for submarines in the Navy's Northwest Training Range, has been approved by the Obama administration. The area –122,400 nautical square miles of space, equal roughly to the size of California – has been used for Navy training since before World War II.

The Bellingham Herald reports environmentalists are concerned about plans to expand training there.

In a letter to the Navy, the Natural Resources Defense Council said the plan "would pose significant risk to whales, fish and other wildlife." They are concerned about hazardous materials in the water from both spent and unexploded weapons.

Environmentalists also worry about the safety of the 150 orcas known to live in the Puget Sound and along the Pacific coastline from Washington to California.

"They're all very susceptible," said Howard Garrett, the president of Orca Network, a nonprofit group based in Washington state. "The Navy is single-minded and they're focused, and the whales are very much a secondary concern to them."

The group is among the many opponents in Washington state and California lining up against the Navy's plan.

Navy officials have been assuring the public that the marine life will be safe.

"We are not even permitted to kill even one marine mammal. ... What people don't seem to understand is we share the environment with everybody," said Sheila Murray, a Navy spokeswoman. "It's our environment, too. Of course we want to take care of it. The Navy goes to great lengths to protect the marine environment."

Of the Navy's expanded operations at the site, she said: "This training is important. It allows Naval forces to be prepared."

Opponents fear that missile and sonar testing and the dumping of depleted uranium could hurt the whales.

The Natural Resources Defense Council worries the Navy will release a variety of hazardous materials into coastal waters, including "thousands of rounds of spent ammunition and unexploded ordnance containing chromium, chromium compounds, depleted uranium" and more.

The council also believes the mid-frequency sonar the Navy uses to detect submarines and underwater objects interferes with whales' ability to navigate and communicate, and that the chronic noise can interfere with whales' brain development and depress reproductive rates.

"I'm not convinced by the assurances that the Navy gives that there will be no effect," Garrett said. ""I can't imagine that there won't be mortalities."

Murray called that concern a myth.

"The Navy's been training on that range since before World War II: 70 years. Nobody was even aware that the Navy was there. And if what they were saying was true, they would see dead marine mammals floating up on shore. It's not true," she said.

Indeed, that's why Whale Watch Week continues along the Oregon coast. The Oregon Parks and Recreation Department coordinates the winter and spring whale watch weeks in partnership with Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Center and Marine Mammal Institute, the University of Oregon's Oregon Institute of Marine Biology, and Washington State Parks, which operates the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center.