Oregon's Whale Watchdog

Carrie Newell beneath the Gray Whale head at the Whale, Sea Life, & Shark Museum in Depoe Bay, Oregon. (Image courtesy of Carrie Newell/The Whale, Sea Life, & Shark Museum)

-by Bryan Kalbrosky

On a clear day, the waters are clean and cerulean, the sky is unblemished, and the bright sun airs across the entire coast of the Pacific Northwest. Scenes like this not only help make the Oregon Coast one of the top travel destinations in the region but one of the most captivating places in the country to spend time during the spring and summer.

Perhaps one of the most compelling features that the Oregon Coast offers from late March until mid-June is the presence of nearly eighteen thousand whales passing through on their twelve-thousand-mile journey from Mexico toward the Arctic Ocean in Alaska.

It is here in Depoe Bay, the whale watching capital of the Oregon Coast, that marine biologist Carrie Newell makes her home and career.

Whale Research EcoExcursions, Newell’s company, was founded independently in 2005 after Newell hoped to seek a proactive initiative to fund her own research. She began the company following inadequate support from Oregon State University, where she was teaching at the time. Newell, a licensed captain, is also a published author and a professor of marine biology at Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon.

With a six-person capacity on her ex-coastguard boat (also known as an inflatable Zodiac boat best popularized by the Cousteau team), Newell and her dog, Kida, glide through the waves of Depoe Bay in search for one of the Summer Resident Gray whales. When the residents are in season, Newell advertises a 95 percent success rate for spotting at least one whale on her countless journeys after nearly every weekend for twenty years.

While there may be dangers on a potentially rocky ride, Newell holds a diverse and varied background in both marine biology and volcanology. With more than twenty years of experience on the water, Newell has absorbed a sense of respect for the ocean. Passengers often compliment her remarkable ease with which she travels.

“I want them to be educated. I want them to feel safe. I want them to come back knowing more than they did when they left,” says Newell. She also provides jackets, hats, and blankets to any patron on the six-person journeys aboard her twenty-six-foot long boat. “You do whatever you can to make sure they’re happy.”

Even though most whales are known to stay half a mile off-shore, every hour, up to thirty whales are known to pass through when they are in season. By Oregon state law, Newell and her boat are required to stay at least one hundred yards from the whales. If the whales come toward the boat, however, the passengers may freely interact with the animals.

Each whale can grow up to forty-five feet and can weigh as much as seventy thousand pounds when fully developed. While these whales were removed from the endangered species list in 1994, the experience of spotting a whale with Newell is often considered to be a life highlight by reviewers.

“I teach [my customers] that these whales are individuals and that we have to save them because it’s not just a whale—it’s a whale with a name and with a history,” Newell says.

She claims to understand the personality of these whales even with just a half a dozen encounters. Some of her favorite whales include “Scarback” (who was hit with an exploding harpoon in the mid-1980s), and “Blanco” (also known as the “white whale male gigolo”). Her all-time favorite consistent sighting is “Eagle Eye” (whom she first encountered nearly fifteen years ago), an easily identifiable and beautiful whale she has come across every year since she first named him. After so many sightings, Newell eventually named her boat after him.

Newell’s research includes measures such as discovering a whale’s gender, if they have any calves, what their condition and feeding areas are like, what the water temperature is, and a thorough analysis of the specimens found from plankton nets.

Thanks to her vast experience and research ethic, she was one of few selected to work with both Oregon Field Guide and Ocean Future Society on PBS Features with the Cousteau team. Here, she focused her work and research on proving the feeding habits of Summer Gray whales.

“Diving with the Cousteau team and just being able to talk to them and learn about their experiences was probably one of the high points of my whole life,” Newell says.

In the 2004 PBS Feature, Newell proved that gray whales actually feed on mysid shrimp while they are in Depoe Bay, and not their usual diet of amphipods. After this discovery, her fame within the scientific community began to skyrocket.

Much of the new information Newell discovers has been applied to the museum exhibitions that she now operates on the Oregon Coast. She can often be found here on the weekends managing the Whale, Sea Life & Shark Museum in Depoe Bay.

“It’s privately funded out my own pocket,” says Newell, who hopes to share her knowledge and infamous lifelong collections with people beyond her classroom. “I’m teaching an overload at the college now to help pay for the museum.”

Recently at the Whale, Sea Life & Shark Museum in Depoe Bay, Newell has installed a blowing gray whale that sprays real water and makes a sound at the push of a button. She is also working on the new bird room, with bird specimens and replica of a mother and child western gull.

As someone who paved a career to match her interests, Newell advises those struggling to find their passion to listen to to what their gut is telling them.

“It took me years to go after what I wanted to do,” Newell says. “Go with what your heart tells you is right. Get your foot in the door and keep your focus on what you want to do.”

One thought on “Oregon's Whale Watchdog

  1. Sarah Keartes

    Love this post, Carrie is great. How do you figure out what whales are eating? Well, Newell and crew scooped up whale poop before it dispersed or sank. That’s not easy and takes a lot of patience. 🙂 talk about a cool sci-chick!

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