Depoe Bay Whale Watching: Everything You Need to Know About the Whale Watching Capital of Oregon

The Oregon Coast has a lot to offer, from charming beach towns to some of the best surfing in the United States. But it also has something else up its sleeve—it’s one of the best places in the world to see gray whales! Specifically, the small town of Depoe Bay, along the central coastline, is renowned as the Whale Watching Capital of Oregon. So if you’d like to see these gentle giants for yourself, here’s everything you need to know about Depoe Bay whale watching.

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Gray whale seen from the shore of Depoe Bay, Oregon
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Gray whales are an impressive animal by any stretch, measuring almost 40 feet long (about as big as a school bus!) and weighing about 60,000 pounds. They’re also renowned for being extremely friendly and curious and have been known to approach whale-watching boats and even stick their heads above water to observe the humans onboard. 

Sadly, these magnificent creatures were hunted to almost near extinction through the early 20th century until international protections were thankfully put in place. Their population has since rebounded and they can now be observed all along the western coastline of the United States, Canada, and part of Mexico.

Why do so many gray whales hang out in Depoe Bay?

There’s around 20,000 gray whales in the Pacific Ocean, most of which hang out in the Arctic waters around Alaska during summertime and then migrate down past the central Oregon Coast to the warm waters of the Baja Peninsula of Mexico in the wintertime to breed and raise their calves. 

Fluke of a gray whale in Depoe Bay, Oregon

Accordingly, you can see these migrating whales as they pass the Oregon coastline, in mid-December through mid-January, as they make their way down to the lagoons of Baja, and from late March through the end of May, as they come back up with their young.

In addition to these whales, though, there’s about two hundred called “resident whales”, which cut the 6,000 journey from Mexico to Alaska short and instead, spend June through mid-November, feeding in the waters off Depoe Bay. 

Gray whale swimming off the coast of Depoe Bay in Oregon

Scientists aren’t exactly sure why the gray whales love Depoe Bay so much, other than its underwater kelp forests close to its shoreline are rich in their food sources, like mysid shrimp and amphipods. Either way, the resident whales’ presence extends the period of time where visitors to Depoe Bay can enjoy some epic whale watching.

How to Get to Depoe Bay

Depoe Bay is located along the central part of the Oregon coastline. Found along the iconic Highway 101, it’s conveniently near some of the most popular Oregon coast towns, like Newport (20 minutes south of Depoe Bay) or Pacific City and its famed Cape Kiwanda (50 minutes north). 

View of the Depoe Bay Harbor along the Oregon Coast

Alternatively, Depoe Bay can even be a day trip from Portland, located just two hours and 15 minutes southwest of Oregon’s largest city. 

You can theoretically get to Depoe Bay from Portland and other cities along the Oregon coastline via a series of buses, but I’d definitely recommend bringing or renting a car while you’re exploring this area—the Oregon Coast was made for road trips!

When is the best time to visit Depoe Bay for whale watching?

While you can definitely spot plenty of whales offshore during their migratory periods in the wintertime, the best time to visit Depoe Bay for whale watching is in the summertime (June through late September), when the residents hang out close to the shoreline to feed.  

During this period of time, there’s usually at least a couple of whales (and sometimes as many as 15!) in Depoe Bay every day that hang out about half a mile or so offshore and feast on mysid shrimp and other whale snacks. 

Gray whale spouting off the coast of Depoe Bay in Oregon

When is the best time of day to visit Depoe Bay for whale watching?

Typically, the morning is the best time of day to go whale watching. This has less to do with how active the whales are at this time, but more to do with the weather conditions.

Later in the afternoons, the wind typically picks up, which causes larger waves, making it harder to see the whales and a less pleasant experience if you’re headed out on a boat tour.

Fluke of a gray whale diving in Depoe Bay, Oregon

Whale Watching Options in Depoe Bay

When you get to Depoe Bay, you’ll have two primary options for whale watching—either going on a guided tour or enjoying the whales from the shore.

While gray whales are the most common whale you’ll see in Depoe Bay, it’s also possible to spot humpbacks, minke whales, orcas, and blue whales, along with other sea life, like harbor seals, sea lions, and plenty of seabirds.

Pelican flying over the water in Depoe Bay, Oregon

Depoe Bay Whale Watching Tours

There’s a few tour operators in town that take you from the Depoe Bay Harbor—which, interestingly, is the smallest navigable natural harbor in the world—out into the bay to see the whales. These tour companies usually operate from early spring through the fall.

When Justin and I visited Depoe Bay, we went on an hour and a half whale watching tour with Whale Research EcoExcursions, due to its rave reviews on TripAdvisor and the fact that it’s owned and operated by a professor of marine biology, Carrie Newell.

To be honest, at the beginning of the tour, I wasn’t totally sure what to expect. 

You’ll meet at the company’s Whale, Sealife and Shark Museum, which, despite its handmade vibes, has an impressive collection of marine life specimens.

Whale, Sealife, and Shark Museum in Depoe Bay, Oregon

And to kick off the tour, you’ll watch two videos, which are about a decade old, about the gray whales and Carrie’s research. Again, even though the videos felt slightly outdated and homemade, they’re extremely informative and demonstrate Carrie’s unabashed passion for these whales—she literally dedicated THREE YEARS of her life, following the whales around, waiting for them to poop, to definitively prove what they were eating in Depoe Bay! It was her discovery that confirmed that the whales were actually eating mysid shrimp, as opposed to just amphipods.

Then you’ll head off to the harbor to board one of the company’s five boats, which include ex-Navy seal boats, an ex-Coast Guard boat, and even a tender boat for one of Jimmy Buffet’s yachts (God rest his soul). They each sit about six to thirteen people (we love a small group!) and are better for preventing seasickness than larger boats, due to the lower center of gravity.

Zodiac boats for a whale watching tour in Depoe Bay

Plus, it was obvious how seriously this company took safety—Carrie (who actually was the captain and guide during our tour!) constantly was checking in on the guests to make sure we were safely positioned on the boat and to ensure we weren’t feeling seasick.

We saw two whales during our one and a half hour tour, who each spouted and dove several times (sometimes, quite close to our boat!!), showing off their backs and tails. We also drove out to a buoy, where a handful of endangered steller sea lions were hanging out. Along the way, we also saw several species of birds, including a common mure, western gull, and marbled murrelets. Throughout the tour, Carrie shared tons of interesting information and unique characteristics about the wildlife that we were seeing.

Steller sea lions on a buoy near Depoe Bay, Oregon

While I was more than happy with the amount of wildlife we saw, we went on a day where the waves were quite large, making it a bit more difficult to see wildlife (it’s worth noting that Carrie pointed this out before our tour and offered everyone a full refund if they didn’t want to head out). I actually know someone who literally went on a tour with this same company the very next day, who had totally calm waves and five whales swimming around their boat literally the entire time they were in the bay. 

Given you can’t control the surf or where the whales are going to be on any given day, you just gotta be willing to roll with the punches (or, in this case, with the waves!) on a whale watching tour.

Couple smiling aboard a whale watching boat in Depoe Bay Harbor in Depoe Bay, Oregon

Overall, I’d definitely recommend going on a whale watching tour with Whale Research EcoExcursions, given, not only that Depoe Bay is arguably the best place to see gray whales in the entire United States, but the company’s impeccable attention to their guests and their evident passion for these gentle giants.

Whale Watching from the Shore of Depoe Bay

If you’re on a budget or don’t have a few hours to dedicate to taking a full blown Depoe Bay whale watching tour, you can alternatively try to spot whales from shore. 

The downtown area of Depoe Bay offers a walkway along its coastline, as well as the OPRD Whale Watching Center, a state-run overlook with expansive views of some of the whales’ feeding grounds for folks to stop at and see if they spot any whales. There’s rangers stationed here, who you can ask any and all your gray whale questions, and throughout most of the year, there’s daily ranger talks at 11:30 AM, 12:30 PM, and 1:30 PM to learn more about these magnificent creatures. 

OPRD Whale Watching Center in Depoe Bay, Oregon

In the summer and fall, gray whales usually feed within one mile from shore, so you can usually spot them spouting from this viewpoint. When we visited in September, I hung out at the viewpoint for about 20 minutes and, while other visitors kept excitedly spotting a whale while I was there, I kept unfortunately missing them (they pop up pretty quickly!). Given it’s totally free, though, it’s worth a stop while you’re in Depoe Bay, even if you also go on a whale watching tour, to get a different vantage point (for free!). 

While this isn’t in Depoe Bay, we also spotted gray whales spouting and diving from the shore while visiting the Yaquina Bay Lighthouse, about twenty minutes south in the town of Newport. This lighthouse is totally worth a stop if you’re doing an Oregon road trip along the coastline, due to its high vantage point that offers sweeping vistas, an excellent visitors center, and abundant wildlife (so many seabirds!).

View from the Yaquina Bay Lighthouse in Newport, Oregon

Where to Stay in Depoe Bay

If you’re wanting to hang out for a day or two in Depoe Bay, there’s some awesome accommodations in town to enjoy this small, charming town. Check out:

  • Inn at Arch Rock: This inn is right along the shoreline, with a terrace overlooking the bay and ocean views from almost every single room. This is an AWESOME spot to watch whales while you sip your coffee in the morning or have a glass of locally-made wine in the evening. You’ll also be steps away from a beautiful, secluded beach and the inn dishes up a delicious breakfast every morning. All in all, this would be my #1 choice when staying in Depoe Bay.
  • SCP Depoe Bay Hotel: This eco-conscious hotel (they plant a tree for every guest that stays with them!) offers beautiful views of the harbor, with a patio and in-room balconies to watch the boats zip in and out (did we mention this is the world’s SMALLEST natural navigable harbor?!). It’s conveniently located within walking distance to the cute shops and restaurants within town and has plenty of nifty perks, like an onsite breakfast and a yoga room.
Boat entering the harbor of Depoe Bay, Oregon
  • Clarion Inn Surfrider Resort: If you’re looking for a good budget option in the Depoe Bay area, this is an excellent choice. The building is basic and, to be honest, a bit dated, but there’s still a lot to like about this hotel, including delicious onsite breakfast, stunning ocean views, and friendly staff.

Hopefully, you have a better idea of what to expect from Depoe Bay whale watching! Do you have any questions about the gray whales or Depoe Bay? Let us know in the comments below!

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