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On an Oregon whale watch crabs were the only marine life on display, as the whales stayed beneath the water.
On an Oregon whale watch crabs were the only marine life on display, as the whales stayed beneath the water. (Stephan Jermanok for the Boston Globe)

Oregon coast shows off, but whales don't show at all

Email|Print| Text size + By Stephen Jermanok
Globe Correspondent / June 25, 2006

CANNON BEACH, Ore. -- ``I just saw a whale breach for the first time since 1993," said an excited Sue Daniel, a volunteer with a group called Whale Watching Spoken Here, referring to the action the animals perform when they propel their massive bodies out of the water and slam down on one side.

``Holy mackerel," I said to Sue, knowing that this might be the chance encounter I had been been waiting for: to finally see a whale other than Shamu greet me in his distinctive fashion, be it a breach, a fluke -- where the behemoth takes his large tail out of the water and practically waves -- or a spout.

I pin the binoculars to my eyes and peer out onto the Pacific, scanning the water for any movement. I find the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse on a rock some two miles out to sea, looking like a one-room schoolhouse, and the immense boulders in the water called sea stacks that stand close to shore. But the only sign of life I spot is a puffy black-and-white bird known as the common mure.

On a weeklong jaunt along the Oregon coast, my brother, Jim, and I would take advantage of the perched bluffs jutting out into the surging waves, and the absurd wealth of vacated sand to view gray whale s on their migration north from their breeding grounds off Baja California to their summer playground in the Bering Sea. The round trip is a staggering 10,000 miles, the longest known migration of any mammal. Traveling about 5 miles per hour, it takes the whale s some three weeks to make the journey, passing the Oregon coast in late March and April as they head north, and again in December and January as they make their way back to Mexico.

The whales swim in a straight line along the shallow waters, leading to speculation that the animal navigates by hearing the surf. This made it easy for whalers to harpoon them. By the early 1900s the gray whale was close to extinction. Protection came from the League of Nations in 1937 and now the population hovers around 25,000.

``We would frequently see whales spouting from our dining room window," said John Markham, who grew up in Cannon Beach and is now the director of the Arch Cape Marine Laboratory.

While we had yet to find our Moby-Dick, we did lavish ourselves with an embarrassment of riches from the sea as we dined at Stephanie Inn. San Francisco-trained chef John Newman first came to the Oregon coast to surf, but stayed when he realized that he could never find a fresher bounty of fish, crabs, and oysters, in addition to the wet fecund coastal soil that yields every kind of organic produce imaginable.

``My menu changes daily depending on what the local farmer s or fishermen bring in," said Newman, adding that he always has to offer the mushroom lady a glass of sparkling wine upon her arrival. We were served a robust wild mushroom soup, rich with the taste of shitake, followed by sweet Dungeness crabcakes, and a poached halibut. Wash it all down with an Oregon pinot noir and finish with a toasted hazelnut profiterole and you have a Northwestern feast to rival any big name restaurant's in LA or New York.

The gluttony of good food continued as we made our way south, stopping in the fishing community of Bay City for small, tender Kumamoto oysters on the half shell at the Pacific Oyster, and the creamy blackberry ice cream at Tillamook Cheese Factory.

``If Vermont had an ocean, this is what it would be like," Jim said as we walked to the small lighthouse of Cape Meares , set above another stretch of stunning coastline. Not only is the indigenous product created with the utmost quality, but like Vermont, this stretch of Oregon has an isolated feel that comes with having more than 300 miles of coastline and no big city except Portland close by to overpopulate the shores. You find yourself on long strips of beach inhabited by few if any people, especially in winter and spring . In small towns like Manzanita , Oceanside , or farther south, Yachats , you can grab a kite at the requisite kite shop and run with abandon in the shallow surf.

Route 101 becomes a commercial strip between Lincoln City and Newport , an eyesore especially considering the magnificent beauty of the coast we had just seen. However, the stretch has its highlights. At Depoe Bay, I stood outside my hotel room at dusk eyeing the battering surf as it thrust against the jagged, cavernous rock of the shore, spewing foam high in the air in this Pacific rendition of a Winslow Homer canvas. Out to sea, the ocean was much calmer, like a thin layer of glass with a Windex shine. I pasted the binoculars on my face and looked for that elusive gray whale for a good quarter-hour, panning the waters. A splash here and there caused by a random rock . . . but other than that, nothing.

In Newport the next morning, we ventured out from the largest fishing port on the Oregon coast, cruising past a long rock jetty on the two-hour Marine Discovery Tour . Soon we were on the open water, bouncing atop 5-foot swells, observing the tall Yaquina Head Lighthouse in the distance. Naturalist Kevin Almas threw circular crab cages off the backside of the boat, only to pick them up later on our return trip full of Dungeness crab and one large pink starfish. We spotted the tan-colored Steller sea lions lounging on buoys, and Almas teased us with the information that they had just seen a whale on their last trip out.

``Heck, I swam with whales, even petted one," he added , sprinkling salt in my wound.

I glance d around, but it was hard to see anything with the boat rocking like a see saw. I did manage to find numerous common mures flying around, noting that, yes, they are quite common. Then I gazed downward and became aware of my bulging belly, getting bigger every day . If I didn't see a whale on this trip, I would have at least the consolation of going back home looking like an orca.

South of Newport, the coastline was its wild self again. In the small arts community of Yachats, houses clung precariously to the high cliffs, nestled in a forest of spruce and leafless alder s. As a winter storm blackened the sky and littered the surf with a deluge of rain, locals pull ed up to the small parking lot of Yachats State Park and watch ed the spectacle. The hills reach their highest point, 900 feet above the beach, at Cape Perpetua . We drove to the top and got out to take in the exquisite vistas. At the start of the Giant Spruce Trail, a man yelled joyously, ``A whale ! I just saw a whale !" My brother and I ran over, but couldn't spot anything.

``Are you sure?" I asked the man.

``Well, at least I wanted it to be a whale," he said with a chuckle.

Our final night was spent at arguably the most perfect spot on the entire Oregon coast, a former assistant lightkeeper's quarters, set on a grassy patch below the Heceta Head Lighthouse . Above, the tall white lighthouse stood atop a spit of land. Below, breakers exploded against the burgundy red cliffs that hem in a narrow beach filled with driftwood. In the darkness, I grabbed a flashlight from the inn and hike d up to the lighthouse to watch it flash beacon after beacon across the rugged land and then out to sea.

Come morning, my brother and I dined on a seven-course breakfast with the other guests. Afterward, a stretch on the wraparound veranda was in order. I stare d at a crab boat coming into the harbor from its night catch. Then I took out my binoculars and fixed my eyes on the horizon one last time. And that's when I caught sight of a small geyser of water, shot straight up into the sky. From a gray whale's blowhole, of course.

Contact Stephen Jermanok, a freelance writer in Boston, at farandaway@comcast.net .

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