There Be Whales Here!

I’m getting better and better at following my instincts. This one paid off, big time.

Apropos nothing, right in the middle of running errands, I turned my truck around and kept driving west until I saw salt water. The warm breeze at Cannon Beach was gossamer, the burning sun was cranked down a few notches by high clouds, and the beach was relatively empty with all the families ensconced back in Portland on a school day. I felt like an evil genius.I fell into a walking meditation between the foam and jetsam of high tide. Grey sand fleas jumped around me like popcorn as I passed over their tiny burrows. Seagulls eyed me coolly and goosestepped around shipwrecked jellies and crab shells. The only sound was waves. Tolovana Park at the south end is where you go to be undisturbed.

By the time I reached Jockey Cap rock, the sun had worked its magic and all I wanted to do was lie down. I scouted the flattest slab of sedimentary possible, far away from the seaweed and the fleas, draped myself over it, and watched my eyelids slam shut. The soft, warm wind gently traveled up my pants legs and down my collar like a massage.But something compelled me to rise and head back after only ten minutes. I looked to the sea and got my answer–whale spouts! Rare on a good day, spouts are the beach goer’s treat. There was a pair of something large out there moving up the strand with me, blowing salt water and CO2 straight into the air every twenty seconds. I kept my focus on them as I walked, holding a hand up to shield my eyes until my arm shook. Then, an unmistakable black hump lurched into the air and slid back under the waves.

“Admiral, there be whales here!”

This called for a better vantage point. I scurried up the grassy part of the beach and sat next to a local couple on a bench wrought from half a log. “Did you see the whales?” we nearly asked each other in unison, then laughed at some tourist down in the sand who thought they were orcas. Everybody around these parts knows a humpback whale when they see one. And, anyway, if a telltale black dorsal fin suddenly sliced the sky, there’d be a lot more running and screaming on this beach than pointing and grinning.sea world trainersWe watched scoops of pelicans (a flock of pelicans is called a scoop; now you’re smarter than yesterday) plunge-dive into the waves like brown javelins, then bob back up like corks. They seemed to be congregating in thick squadrons (yeah, they’re called squadrons, too) on the surface of the water near the whales, just hanging out. But my binoculars told a different story:

“Those aren’t pelicans, those are flippers! They’re seals!”

A local named Rob chuckled and said, “Yeah, they do that. They form seal flotillas.”

I had to look that one up when I got home. You’re not gonna believe this:  When sea lions feel a powerful nap attack coming on and there’s no suitable haul out around for them to bask on, they cluster together in the water in Rob’s flotilla formation and catch 40 winks. If the water’s a tad chill, they each raise a flipper to catch the sun in an act of thermoregulation called “sailing.” When they all do it at once, it looks like a weird patch of spiky seaweed or a pod of pelicans. (Yup, pods, too.) It’s called rafting and it’s the damnedest thing I ever saw.For the next ten minutes we watched all sizes of cetacean shoot whale snot ten feet high from Jockey Cap to Terrible Tilly. Sometimes they coordinated a simultaneous blow like a nasal fireworks display. The locals said they’d never seen whales so close before and never so many. There’s a reason for that. Rob’s wife eyed my binoculars with thinly veiled envy.

Spouts turned to snouts when the humpbacks began bubble net feeding. Just a few thousand feet from shore in less than 150 feet of of wiggle room, these guys were performing a deep water feat with staggering precision. It was probably anchovies because the seals and pelicans were excited, too. Nobody gets that excited about shrimp, not even with tartar sauce. Okay, maybe with tartar sauce.

Without warning, an entire whale tail rose up in all its humongous, wet glory. Whoever owned it held it vertically for several beats like a runway model pausing on the catwalk. We hooted and clapped and one of the locals gave me a high-five. I told her, “All I need now is to see a full breach and I’ll be happy.”

That’s when they started breaching. I shit you not.

Nose up, fins out, turn to the side…ka-POOOSH! Then another one. Then, three at once, then two more. They just kept going and going. It was a humpback whale rave. We squealed and yelled and fist pumped each performance like Seahawks fans on Red Bull. I got more high fives. Several whale generations were heaving themselves into the air and landing right in the silver glare of a setting sun as if it were a spotlight.They followed it all up with a hearty round of flipper slapping on the surface. Even from this distance, my brain could easily work out just how monstrous those flippers were. If one ever came down on my truck, my comprehensive insurance would be activated from bumper to bumper. Humpbacks have incredibly long flippers, up to a third of their total body length. Their scientific name, Megaptera, means “large-winged” and they are built for speed and hydrodynamics. They’re the sports cars of the deep. humpback high fiveThen it was over. The froth disappeared, the waves settled. Like closing time at the Hardrock Cafe, everybody just turned out the lights and left the room. Deflated but still grinning, the locals and I lingered to admire two massive sun dogs on either side of the late afternoon sky. I told them this could mean a decent sun pillar at sunset and to keep their eyes peeled.images

Driving home, I adjusted my side mirror so I could watch that sun pillar bisect a yellow, then orange, then purple sky behind me. In the dark ahead was a bright crescent moon so sharp it could cut paper. That night, I slept like a seal in the sun.

September 18, 2015

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29 thoughts on “There Be Whales Here!

  1. Pingback: There Be Whales Here! 9-18-15 | All Thoughts Work™ Outdoors

  2. That is amazing!! Since we moved to WA state a few years ago, I’ve been trying to get to the water to watch these guys. Watching them off the islands of Hawaii as I was growing up was the best weekend activity.

  3. You’re making me lust for the west coast. Last year my girlfriend and I road tripped up the Pacific Coast Highway. It was probably the most incredible thing we’ve ever done. The Pacific is just incredible (and that’s coming from two Floridians who live an hour and a half from both the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico).

    • Hey, I’m honored you stopped by!

      I literally just walked in the door from a trip to Mt. Hood to photograph the larches. My memory card is bulging. When you come again to the Pacific Northwest (and you know you will) make it spring or fall. And bring extra memory cards and batteries. 😉

      I know Florida rather well (grandparents) and what I miss the most is the color of the mornings on the beach. Seashell-colored dawns.

    • Thanks! I was just thinking about the coast today, trying to figure out why everyone paints everything in their beach house white. No joke; you walk into some of these places and you put your sunglasses back ON. As a serial renter, if I never see white again, it’ll be too soon!

      • If you keep renting, may you find your next home all done in nice, non-blinding (and easier-to-maintain!) colors. The all-white thing seems particularly odd and silly when you think about all of the sand, dirt, and damp you’re always going to have around on the coast, with the possible exception of the regularity of darker weather; *maybe* that’s the motivation, just a desire for light. Or they’re all people who like housekeeping WAAAY more than I do. 😉

        • Yeah, the desire for light works around here as a reason in the wintertime when the sky is the color of cement all day long. But other parts of the world, brighter parts, everything’s still whiter close to the wharf. Almost like they’re bringing their white sail boats inside with them, like they’re trying to make their living room feel like a schooner. I guess I’m just a landlubber.

  4. have seriously fond memories of the oregon coastline

    way back in my hippy days (almost 40 years ago), 1st wife and I – [we were living in Calgary at the time] – packed up our jobs and took some time out to leisurely hitch across to Vancouver Island then down the west coast of the USA and into Mexico

    loved the oregon coastline, met some really friendly, welcoming folk who took us in, accommodated us and fed us good food and good conversation, took us dog walking and horse-riding along the beach, and introduced us to their friends and lots of artsy-crafty little shops and wholefood/vegan restaurants

    got a great sense of community spirit and positive vibes that almost seduced us into abandoning our goal of reaching Mexico and central/southern America !

    Oregon is definitely one place I would like to re-visit if the opportunity arose !

    • What a fantastic story! I’ve noticed that people are like radios: we receive whatever frequency we’re on. You were obviously ridin’ a high wave of good feelings and brotherly love and you were surrounded by it as a result. Well done! I’ve been there; I’ve actually had total strangers invite me over for a weekend: https://allthoughtsworkoutdoors2.wordpress.com/2014/09/14/going-coastal-wavewatching-at-cape-perpetua-709/

      But now you have to come back to the scene of the crime. Oregon has even more breweries, wineries, orchards, and groovy little eateries now. The weirdness never faded; it likely only intensified into hipsters and tree huggers, of which I am one. (A tree hugger, not a hipster. I look horrible in black glasses and skinny jeans.)

      As a smart-aleck and a character, you’ll blend in so well people will assume you’re a local. Not even an accent will expose you; we have so many British, Irish, and Scottish imports you’d think they issued mandatory tweed and kilts at the dock. Then, there’s the beards. Lumbersexual, that’s us.

      Let me know when you get here, I wanna make sure the stout is room temperature.

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