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Paddler’s Paradise at Port Orford Heads

July 24, 2016


Associated Press

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) - Dave Lacey shouts over his shoulder, his voice carrying through salty air laced with a pungent shrimp-and-sour mystery aroma: “Have you ever smelled whale’s breath before?”

As the scent hits them, four kayakers in boats behind Lacey’s exchange looks and comments that reflect more delight than disgust. Rarely does one get to tail a whale so closely - to paddle through the precise place where, moments before, the mighty mammal surfaced, spouted and left lingering evidence of its most recent visit to the submarine seafood buffet.

Actually, Lacey experiences this kind of thing all the time as owner of South Coast Tours, reported The Register-Guard ( His is the only company in this part of the state offering guided near-shore kayak excursions such as the wildlife-viewing trip happening this day off of the magnificently looming, teeming-with-life Port Orford Heads.

But as is true on this overcast September morning, most of his wetsuit-clad clients experience new-to-them revelations around every rocky corner and in every cave and cove as they ply Oregon’s rugged southern coastline.

A brief whale tale

Today, a juvenile gray whale quickly and silently rolls at the surface, near a sheer rock cliff plunging into deep water no more than 30 yards away. Lacey orders his flotilla to hold position. The creature’s next rise could happen anywhere in the vicinity. An oval of surface water suddenly swells and shimmers like a soon-to-boil pot just off the port side of one kayak. That’s a sign of a powerful tail thrust below, Lacey says.

Paddles pause; pulses pound.

Then, a spout!

“There! It’s moving fast,” Lacey yells, motioning toward a rocky point, maybe 100 yards seaward, where the silvery-gray leviathan seems to be speeding toward open ocean.

Everyone follows Lacey at full paddle for a few minutes through increasing seas and the aforementioned whale’s breath. After crossing Hells Gate - a gap between the headlands and offshore Tichenor Rock - the group slips into the heads’ last south-facing cove to watch for more signs of the whale.

Rounding the corner and heading north from here would mean full-on western exposure to the Pacific’s potent waves and winds, a challenge best left to expert ocean paddlers. So, Lacey typically makes this the turnaround point of a 3.65-mile, 2.5-hour tour.

The whale’s departure for unseen waters becomes certain after several minutes, so the kayakers dip their paddles and swing their bows back toward the beach at the port of Port Orford.

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