There was a distinct possibility that murder was about to happen in Brookings, Oregon.
Within just thirty minutes of arrival at Harris Beach State Park to begin our whale watching adventure, my children had managed to wake the baby, break the strap on my best binoculars and drop a full cup of hot cocoa in my lap. Their incessant bickering had just about pushed me past my daily limit.
My eyelids lowered as I snaked my hand around into the back seat flailing about in search of the culprits, when one of them yelled. “There mommy look quick – I saw a whale!”
Lurching for my broken binoculars, I peered across the waves hoping to see the massive undulating bodies of the gigantic gray whale on it's annual migration south along the Oregon coast to it's winter home in the Baja lagoons of Mexico. Around 18,000 gray whales pass this area in 4 weeks, from mid-December to mid-January, with the best viewing between Christmas and New Year's. Every year since we had moved to the wild rivers coast, I had wanted to see the whale migration and every year, I had missed it. The first year it was a vacation to Hawaii (who would pass that up)? The second year I was heavily pregnant, but THIS year I was determined.
I had spent days preparing the children for what they were about to see. We talked about how the Gray whales have the longest known migration of any mammal, traveling 10,000-12,000 miles round trip every year between their winter calving areas in the warm waters of Mexico and their summer feeding grounds in the cold Arctic seas. Even though they are not the largest whale on earth (that distinction goes to the Blue whale which is the largest mammal ever found on earth - larger even than dinosaurs at up to 90 ft long and as much as 150 tons) - the gray whale is no midget. Weighing in at about 50 tons (that's as much as 10 elephants) and averaging 50 feet long, the Gray whale can live between 30 and 50 years.
We talked about the importance of them seeing the whales. That even though the whales are protected, they are still at risk due to offshore oil drilling, shipping congestion, climate change and poaching. I explained how the only enemies that a gray whale has are the Orca and the human and that we are by far the most dangerous. I tried to stress that if something was not done, the whales could very well be extinct in their lifetime. Of course, they are kids and I'm not sure they were listening. They never seem to listen.
But back to my child's cry of delight at seeing a whale...I think. I see – nothing. “Are you sure you saw a whale?” No one answered, of course. No one ever answers.
I put down the glasses and searched in the glove compartment for something to soak up the chocolate.
“There! Look!” my oldest cried. “To the left of the big buoy.”
Wiping the steamy window with my hand, I peered intently across the foaming waves. Nothing.
I hope he has seen a whale, but I doubted it. Even during the migration, they are difficult to distinguish from large rocks that are being covered and uncovered by the action of the waves.
“I want to see a whale, my 6 year old cried, why does Elias only get to see it? He's kicking my seat. Eliaaassssss!"
“Because Elias is looking through his binoculars instead of taking away the baby's toys. Elias, stop kicking the seat. Do ..YOU.. HEAR... ME????”
"OK, (I try another tactic) C'mon, let's all get out of the car and maybe we can see better."
So, there we were. Our shivering little family. Huddled together for warmth on a bench at Harris Beach park, binoculars glued to our faces, Elias, Zak, the baby and me in my cocoa covered wet pants. Looking for the whales that weren't really there.
And then it happened...
Not 300 yards offshore, a massive black and gray mottled head breached the water and seemed to pause in mid air before gravity took hold and he pounded back into the cold surf. Majestic. Awesome. Breathtaking.
In that moment the air was warm, the rain stopped, my pants were dry and my children were quiet. In that moment as in all moments where you stand witness to something more powerful than words....time slowed just a little.
"Mom! Mom! Did you SEE that?"
I didn't answer.
Ed Note: If you would like to learn more about Gray Whales and Whale Watching on the Oregon Coast visit THE WHALE WATCHING CENTER by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department
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