Words of Whit


Steve Whitford

A gray whale breaches the water. Photo courtesy Whales Tail, Depoe Bay, Ore.

The best adventures may involve a certain degree of danger. We Whitfords do not as a rule, shrink from danger; we embrace it.

Some folks go to sea in search of a living. Some search for game fish or food fish.

This summer, my wife and I went to sea in search of the great gray whale.

On July 1, we arrived in Depoe Bay, Ore. at 7:30 a.m. to join up with our captain from Whales Tail LLC, Gary Stephenson. My wife, Estella, had never been to sea before, but we already knew that her stomach didn’t like small airplanes. (A past mildly dangerous excursion.) “Are you here for whale watching?” our captain asked. “Yes, I replied. Thinking of my wife I said, “We’re your eight o’clock chum run!”

Now there are a few things about whales and Depoe Bay you need to know in order to understand the gravity of our position. Depoe Bay was originally discovered by Dr. F.W. Vinea in 1878 while sailing his 40-foot boat along the Oregon coast. The entrance to the harbor is through a hard-to-find 150 foot dogleg entrance and it’s the smallest harbor in the world. In 1963 the government widened the 30-foot-wide passage to 40 feet and dredged it so it was at least 8 feet deep at low tide.

At 8 a.m. we powered through it at low tide. We Washingtonians like our orcas, which get between 22 and 32 feet long and can weigh up to 6 tons.

Compare that to our adversary, which gets up to 50 feet long and can weigh up to 40 tons! We left the security of the harbor in Capt. Stephenson’s 26 foot Zodiac pontoon boat, a boat half as big as our quarry.

Stephenson managed the narrow rock-lined channel with the ease of experience and as soon as you leave that comparatively easy passage, you encounter the bar. Most bays have a bar of some kind. For the unenlightened, a bar is a stretch of water where the water is lifted up by the ever shallowing shore, creating large shifting waves. In this case waves were 5 to 8 feet swells. But our captain cut through them with ease. Good thing too, as the sides on the Zodiac are only about 2 feet. Foggy gray clouds obscured the sky and most of the time the shore as well. Gray skies make for gray water and we were looking for a gray whale.

Our captain was good at spotting whales. He can actually smell them when they breach, and with a little practice, so can anyone. When whales spout, they eject a certain amount of water and sea foam that smells like a beach at low tide. Our captain eventually used this method and placed our craft where he thought a whale might be. Sure enough, a few minutes later, the whale surfaced approximately 4 feet away.

To see an enormous leviathan that close is breathtaking. We saw what passed for the head on a whale. You could see the lid covering its large eye, and as it was rising you could see it closing his gapping maw. We couldn’t see its tail, but we could observe part of its lower torso. The whale paused there for a minute or two then sank out of sight, ignoring us like the little bit of flotsam we were.

Unfortunately big waves and going backwards was taking a toll on my wife. Her maiden name was Green and she was now displaying it. She had the camera so no photos, but she did get to see the whale and she eventually felt better and didn’t chum the whale. This writing is proof that our captain brought us safely back to terra firma.

We’re already thinking about our next summer adventure. We plan to go up in a hot air balloon and hopefully fly over something exciting, like maybe a volcano or perhaps a nudist camp.