I took a spontaneous solo trip up the California & Oregon coasts, all the way to the Olympic National Forest in Washington state, making inland ventures to visit friends, family, and natural phenomena. But that was more than 20 years ago. My recollections of Newport were hazy at best. They didn’t include the Oregon Coast Aquarium (which opened one year later), nor the touristy fisherman’s wharf area. I remember natural seascapes with real working towns and real fishermen in little buildings behind mounds of oyster shells. Things have obviously grown up a bit since then. For all of its 10,000 inhabitants, this seaside community really holds its own, maintaining charm, natural beauty, and culture. There is something for everyone here, from family style tourist to hard-core naturalist to artsy bohemian to yuppie culture vulture.
While I used to grab a pair of shoes and a backpack and just go when I wanted to travel, I now have a family where things must be planned in advance. So for this trip to the Oregon coast, we checked the tour books, researched the websites, and booked our hotels and activities. One thing I was glad to have reserved was seats on the Marine Discovery Tours boat in Newport. It’s an educational vessel that goes on tours to see marine life: specifically, hopefully, whales.
A slight nip in the 9 a.m. air sent us off under a gray sky. Our seasoned captain gave facts about the history the Yaquina River and Harbor, as well as the impressive Yaquina Bridge and Bay. Our young naturalist guide (a University of Oregon student) pointed out the NOAA research facility and ships, as well as the Hatfield Marine Science Center, operated by the University of Oregon. We went “over the bar” into the ocean, where the dip and roll of the waves necessitated rail-grasping for those brave enough to ride the bow. The sky was overcast, but the slight chill would soften to a muggy warmth within an hour. Our captain, a retired seafaring policeman named Bob, was kind, about 5 feet tall, with an easy smile and an outgoing manner. He invited all the children on deck to take turns “driving the boat.” Our naturalist student showed the young people how to bait and set out crab pots off the stern of the boat.
We were very fortunate. Captain Bob explained that the previous day, the ocean had been very rough, and the boat ride was not very pleasant. Today, by contrast, was a beautiful day, he said. I wish he could have convinced the poor young woman at the stern who, I learned from my daughter, had been seasick during most of the trip.
I asked our young naturalist if the visibility would get any better. She informed me that we had excellent visibility, especially compared to yesterday.
I got a little queasy myself, as we approached the area where we hoped to see whales. Again, we were lucky. We observed spouting at the surface of the water. Captain Bob steered toward it. Then he stopped the motor because, he explained, the law says that boats have to stop within 100 yards of a whale. If the whale wants to come closer, that’s up to the whale, but sailors are not allowed to encroach any closer. After watching for a few moments, we saw two spouts, and then a third! There were three different gray whales feeding in the area. We watched their large, graceful backs rise and descend back into the ocean as they dived after krill. At one point, I saw two flukes rise and disappear together, as a mother and calf dived in unison. The whales didn’t seem to mind our presence, staying for a good 15-20 minutes while we watched them surface and dive. They never breeched, but all the same it was a thrill to be so close to them (we actually got a lot closer than you can see in the picture). We could hear their breath as they spouted out oxygen-spent air.
On the return trip, we were invited to the seats in the cabin, where our naturalist showed videos of phytoplankton, and explained its importance as the sustainer of life at the bottom of the food chain. If the phytoplankton dies, she said, the ocean dies, and if the ocean dies, we all die. Her words gave me occasion for real reflection.
As we headed back toward the harbor, the young crewmember showed the children how to retrieve the crab pots, and gave my eldest daughter the job of coiling the rope. Then she emptied two baskets full of crab into plastic tubs—except for the ones who tried to scuttle away; those she deftly grabbed and put back with their companions. She pointed out rock crabs (they were red) and Dungeness crabs (purple before they are boiled, I noted). She showed us how to hold a crab: gently grab its two back legs with the thumb and last three fingers, while bracing its back against your index finger. There is no way a crab can pinch you when you hold it this way. The kids had a lot of fun holding crabs and passing them off to one another, before returning them to the sea.
As we returned to the harbor, we observed first hand the trollers and trawlers pulling in huge hauls of tuna, salmon, and dungeness crabs. This has been a bumper year for salmon, especially Chinook (which I learned the proper pronunciation of: shin-OOK). It has also been a great year for tuna (we saw signs for “Tuna Loins” all up and down the coast). We spent the afternoon playing tourist in the shops and restaurants of the “Historic Bayfront” district. People were very nice, and prices were not outrageous.
Coming soon: Newport’s Nye Beach District