Life in the tsunami zone

It’s early winter on the Oregon coast and Depoe Bay is a roiling sea as gray whales bound about in the distance, mostly behind behemoth waves driven by an oncoming winter storm.

Along the seawall people are everywhere in their jackets and other warming gear, with cameras or binoculars, hypnotized as the waves pound away. The stormy sea sends great white splashes into the air that generate applause.

It’s as if Depoe Bay were a vast stage without actors – or very shy performers, if you count the gray whales off in the distance – and the churning of the water is part of an amazingly on-schedule performance (considering this is the holiday Whale Watch Week rush).

During the week, many of the same people had been shopping during the busiest day of the holiday season. That night, maybe as they luxuriated in a local hotel room with waves from big winds pounding out-side their big picture windows, the watched anniversary shows on last year’s tsunami disaster in the Indian ocean. Now they are enthralled with waves powered by a storm way out by Hawaii heading this way, coming fast as 30 to 40 mph wind gusts whip away, and the power of the water is the attraction.

The whales? They are hidden behind, zooming in and out of a white-washed curtain out there ... riding high ... riding low ... .

Mark Spaulding, who has come from Vancouver, Wash., to see this, instead points his fancy camcorder down into the Depoe Bay spouting horn. Others stand closely nearby, hoping to catch a bit of the spray. There is no logic to the way the waves break, no apparent system, no pattern, no order, no way to predict which wave will be the one to send the water shooting through the spout and into the air. Finally, we have a hit. Spray goes into the air, onto the sidewalk, onto vehicles parked along the seawall.

He exclaims. “I got one!” That is, his camera did, his highly sensitive lens doused by the salty sea of the Pacific.

Meanwhile, in the “Whale Watching Spoken Here” interpretive center, a woman is toting two restless grandchildren onto the second deck of the building perched on the southern end of the seawall. The picture windows for the room in-the-round are steamy from the day’s crowds. One of the boys climbs onto a for-pay viewmaster. “I want a quarter!” the boy shouts. But the grandmother says, “Why, there’s nothing to see out there. If there was anything to see, we could do it.” Then, she says, “Did your mother ever tell you about the time we saw a whale go right under the boat in Mexico?”

Actually, the whales are going right under her nose again.

At precisely that same time, one deck below in the interpretive center, there is, in fact, something to see out there. A whole room of people lean into the window with their binoculars as Morris Grover, lead interpretive ranger for the Oregon State Park service’s whale watch center, keeps people in the room posted. “There’s one going by the buoy,” he shouts. With swells of 20 feet or more, it has been a hard day to see whales, he said. On this day, he only sees six or seven. The next day, with calmer seas with only 12-foot swells, he will see 20 whales. But on this day the payoffs are few and far between as the giant curtain of waves steals the show.
“Well, there’s one of the 1,800 whales out there,” he says to the crowd.
Leaning toward the sea is a natural tendency. When you go to the beach on a sunny day in say, Florida or Southern California, we are all children at heart: We want to go in.

But this kind of sea is different. We are drawn to the sea, but in cases such as these, with it crashing and roiling and churning, to try to get close is unwise.
There are signs all over. Such as the sign at the Rocky Creek outlook off of Highway 101, just south of Depoe Bay, which states: “Warning. Area beyond this point subject to high dangerous waves. Even though ocean appears calm large waves may sweep over rocks at any time. Do not go beyond this sign.”

So, just as people are poking their cameras into the Depoe Bay spouting horns a few miles away, people who can (probably) read have crossed the line. Rocky Creek is peculiar in this way. Its access to a very close look at the sea is easier, due to the erosion of where a fence should be. Three men are past the warning sign. The sea doesn’t appear to be calm. Indeed, high dangerous waves are apparent. Just beneath their noses. High dangerous waves are almost at eye level for anyone daring enough to scramble down just a few feet of rain-slick black rock. The tide is coming in. They are getting a face full.

Such is also the case at Cape Perpetua, just south of Yachats. There is a huge spouting horn at a place called the Devil’s Churn. This should be a clue. Well-built stairs in the trail lead down to where the spouting horn sends white-water blasts into the air.

A young couple goes down and disappears around the bend to where the very front edge of the horn should be.

The tide is coming in.

Next time they are seen, at the top of the Cape Perpetua trail, they are soaking wet. They get into their car, head north up Highway 101, to zoom up and down, maybe happy, maybe shivering, in and out of a series of coastal areas with blue signs indicating tsunami danger zones.

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