5 Questions with The Spout – Oregon’s Guide to Whale Watching

Erik Urdahl from The Spout standing on a beach in a killer whale costume

The Pacific Northwest is a hotbed of outdoor culture. While ski bums and vanlifers are chasing Instagram shots, Erik Urdahl, founder of The Spout, is chasing whales.

The small coastal town of Depoe Bay is known as the whale watching capital of Oregon. Every year, travel organizations send out emails and social media blasts celebrating the start of whale watching season. The truth is that you can find whales along Oregon’s coast all year long. You just have to know where to look.

There are plenty of scientifically grounded organizations in the Northwest who are working to protect and promote whales but The Spout takes a different approach – an emotional connection.

The Spout is an Oregon based non-profit that’s dedicated to connecting people to whales. Erik  has witnessed the overwhelming emotional response whale watchers experience when they’re up close and personal with gray whales.

As we turn the corner on spring and head into summer, I sat down with Erik for five questions about The Spout, whale watching, and where to find whales.

What is The Spout and how did it start?

The Spout has taken on a few different visions over the years, but right now the website is my guide to whale watching on the Oregon Coast. I started off with some pretty big ideas for this whale based social media network, but eventually realized that I just needed to show people how to find whales in Oregon. After doing it for so many years, I forgot that it takes some practice. 

Being somebody who operates more with his heart than with his head, I set out to try to connect with people on an emotional level rather than a more scientific approach. There are a lot of groups loaded with very smart people who are great at going out there and giving people scientific facts about whales. I wanted to be something different. My approach contains more excitement, more casual swearing. I get giddy as hell when I see whales. I want others to feel that way too.

Where did your passion for whales come from?

I wish there was some great defining moment I could give you, but that’s just not the case. I’m not 100% sure how it all started. I can definitely say that my obsession with the ocean came from my uncles on my mom’s side of the family, most specifically my uncle Todd. He was a diver and an ocean lover. He let me have all of these Jacques Cousteau books when I was a little kid and I remember obsessing over them pretty hard. I was into sharks and dolphins, but not nearly as much as whales. 

I remember dragging my mom up and down the central coast to gift shops looking for these particular whale models that were branded as the Monterey Bay Aquarium collection. I still have them. I’ve been asked about handing them down to kids. To that I say, “fuck that, these babies are mine.” When I was in the 5th grade my mom took my brother and me on a whale watching boat out of Depoe Bay, OR and that really sealed the deal. I was scared shitless at the time, but seeing those whales up close really hooked me.

Kayaker watching a whale fluke near shore along the Oregon coast
Oregon whale watching with a grey whale spouting near a bull kelp forest

Where and when can we find whales on the Oregon coast?

I mean, why did I bother building the site if you’re asking me this question. You could go to the coast any day of the year and see a whale, but there are definitely times of the year when they are more plentiful. The absolute best times, in my opinion, are May through October. 

I used to say that September and October were always the best, but that hasn’t necessarily held up in the last few years. The reason I would tell people that is because it’s when the Willamette Valley would start to cool and the coast was just perfect. The ocean conditions were great, temperatures were up, and wind was down, so it made for great boat rides. However, it seems like the high valley temps are lasting so much longer that you can get some pretty rough weather at the coast in those fall months now. 

This past year, June and July were amazing at the coast but when I went back in September, there were no boats going out because of the wind and ocean conditions. Of course that is for watching whales at sea. In those same summer and early fall months you can have amazing whale encounters on shore.

"In September I stood on the boardwalk in Depoe Bay and made eye contact with a small gray whale. It was amazing. It was early in the morning, just me and the whale."

Once you get into June and up until the end of October or even November, the whales in Oregon are feeding closer to shore. You’ll see them in 8 feet of water. I can’t tell you how many times I have had to tell people to stop looking at the horizon because the whale is literally 20 feet in front of them. 

The thing people in Oregon hear about most is the migration, when you have 20,000 whales passing by off shore. While that’s true, they are usually out a mile or more and they are on a mission to either get to Mexico or Alaska. Because of that, you’re just going to see little puffs on the horizon and it happens in December and March when the weather can be horrible. But because it’s so highly publicized, it drives people to go watch for whales, they have a bad time, and don’t bother to try again. I hate that. I’d much rather get somebody hooked in the summer and then bring them back for the migration. 

The reason we have such good whale watching in the summer is that there is a group of several hundred gray whales called the Pacific Coast Feeding Group that doesn’t bother going all the way to Alaska. They hit the central Oregon Coast and hang out for months because the food supply is so good. Since they are lingering, you’re more likely to see a variety of behaviors and because it’s late spring, summer, or early fall, it’s a much better time to be at the coast.

What’s your favorite part about introducing people to whales?

I always encounter people who are trying so hard to find a whale but looking in the wrong places and so many of them say things like “all I want to do is see one whale.” Then I show them the whale that has been spouting right in front of them and they freak the fuck out. It’s awesome. People jump up and down, they scream, they yell at their friends to come over and look, all sorts of fun reactions. When you have those moments it reassures me as to why I started doing this. That’s that emotional connection I am after. 

It’s super important for people to learn about entanglements and all of the other dangers to whales out there, but if they don’t feel connected to these animals, they probably won’t really care that much. I want people to love whales as much as I do so they get pissed when they find out how bad we’re treating them. Hopefully that fire leads to awareness, positive changes, and conservation for whales.

What’s coming up for The Spout?

I’ll be honest, it’s been really tricky to balance everything in life. Career has become a greater occupier of my time so I haven’t been doing as many projects as I did in the past. Most of the stuff I have been doing has been in partnership with other conservation groups, which has been great, but hasn’t really had the kind of energy I am seeking. 

One of the more exciting things I am working on now is partnering with a friend down on the southern Oregon coast to bring whale watching to the area. Now, maybe calling it a partnership is a bit misleading. He bought the boat and runs the tour company, but I am getting to test out all of these things I have wanted to do to improve whale watching experiences. I don’t want to give away any details, but I will say that my focus is on educating people without getting in the way of the fun experience they are about to have. I know that going out on the ocean can be routine to a lot of people, but to a lot of us it’s an adventure. 

I’m really excited about getting to test out all these ways of connecting to these folks on the boat and also finding ways for them to connect to the whales. I can’t wait to get started.

Full disclosure, Erik Urdahl is one of our Wild Humans. Supporting organizations, like The Spout, in part, inspired us to create Wild Human.

The Spout’s approach to creating emotional connections between people and whales is powerful. If you don’t have a connection to something or someone, you’re less likely to protect it. We hear that a lot in the outdoor world, but Erik drives that point home by putting people within an arm’s reach of a whale.

Next time you’re planning a trip to the Oregon coast, visit TheSpout.org for whale watching locations and tips on what to look for. 

It’s easy to get lost in the horizon when you’re looking out at the ocean. But don’t forget to look a little closer to shore. You just might catch the eye of a gray whale.

Visit TheSpout.org for more information about when and where to find whales on the Oregon coast.

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