During a typical Florence winter, 20,000 whales travel south along the Oregon Coast and about 10 inches of rain falls per month. The combination makes Florence a great destination for two perfect Oregon winter adventures: whale watching and storm watching.
Every December and January, gray whales pass by the Oregon Coast on a 12,000-mile migration from Alaska’s Bering and Chukchi Seas to breeding and nursery waters in Baja California, Mexico.
Last year, visiting whale watchers from around the world spotted more than 2,480 whales, averaging 206 whales per day. As many as 30 whales may pass by in an hour, usually within five miles of shore, giving you excellent odds of seeing a magnificent gray whale from the coastline in and around Florence.
Morning light tends to be best for whale watching, according to the Oregon Coast Visitors Association, with the sun at your back instead of in your eyes. From most viewpoints, if you can see the ocean, you can see a whale, although higher ground makes for a better vantage point.
There’s a technique to successfully spotting and watching whales. First, scan the sea with your naked eye, then focus with binoculars once you’ve spotted a whale. Tracking the gray whale’s common breathing pattern can also help you: a series of three to five shallow dives, lasting 15 to 30 seconds each, followed by a longer dive where the whale goes deep underwater for up to six minutes. A whale sending up its tail signals a deep dive.
Also watch for two common behaviors: spyhopping and breaching. When a whale spyhops, its head comes straight up and out of the water. When breaching, the whale leaps up, then smacks the surface with its back or side, splashing up a great water show.
Florence’s average annual rainfall is 69.40 inches — about a quarter of which usually falls during January and February. Storm watching can be an indoor or outdoor activity, depending on your comfort level and a storm’s severity.
Odds are, though, you’ll be quite content to enjoy an Oregon Coast winter storm from the warmth—and safety—of a room or home with a good ocean view. Stay tuned to local forecasts to help you know when to keep watch. Bring binoculars and a camera to capture stormy skies or high waves, which can easily be 30 feet or taller as they break.
No storm lasts forever; once the storm passes, bundle up and head down to the shore for some prime beachcombing. Post-storm is a great time to find unique treasures and creatures.
Where to view
How to watch the whales or a storm depends in part on where you want to watch (and how severe the weather is). If you prefer to stay closer to Florence, take the South Jetty Road, just past Glenada. You’ll be inside the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, where the South Jetty Beach gives you a direct lookout over the ocean without the need for a high cliff-side lookout.
Head north of Florence, up Highway 101, for one of these high-ground vantage points, listed south to north:
Sea Lion Caves (especially the turnout area)
Heceta Head (park at the beach area below, or head to the lighthouse)
Strawberry Hill (keep watch for seals, sea lions, and killer whales too)
Cape Perpetua (either the lookout or top)
Where to stay and eat
If whale and storm watching from your hotel room is a priority, then Driftwood Shores (driftwoodshores.com) is your pick. Every room in Lane County’s only ocean-front hotel has an ocean view. Kitchenettes, suites for groups, a restaurant, and an indoor swimming area are also available. Oceanfront rental rooms and houses in other parts of the Florence area are also available; check your preferred rental service for options.
Prefer a river view to an ocean view? In Old Town Florence, the River House Inn (riverhouseflorence.com) looks out over the Siuslaw River. From there you can also see the scenic Siuslaw River Bridge. Some rooms have a riverfront view, and you are a short walk from the shops and eateries of Old Town.
Start your morning at River Roasters (coffeeoregon.com) with a hot beverage and some fresh-baked breads or pastries. When hungry for lunch and dinner, Mo’s Seafood and Chowder (moschowder.com), Bridgewater Fish House (bridgewaterfishhouse.com), and the Bay Street Grille (541/902-9033) offer expansive menus in family-friendly spaces. For a more intimate dinner with a sunset view, make reservations at the dinner-only Waterfront Depot Restaurant (thewaterfrontdepot.com). The few tables near the window look out at the bridge and dunes.