: Jonathan Smith

Take a Marine-Life Cruise on the Oregon Coast

Learn more about whales, sea lions and fishing vessels on a guided charter boat.
September 6, 2023

The afternoon breeze holds a hint of fish, but the Pacific is calm. My husband and I stand in the sunshine on the deck of the 65-foot Discovery, a guided charter boat that operates sea-life cruises for Marine Discovery Tours on the Central Oregon Coast. Just offshore there’s an abundance of marine life — from giant gray whales to tiny white jellyfish — and we’re here hoping to see some of them as we head out from Newport’s marina. As a busy travel writer and parent, I was delighted to let this family-owned tour outfitter take care of everything from personal flotation devices to microscopes.

The captain helps a child steer the boat (Photos by Jonathan Smith)

How to Take a Marine-Life Tour

Travelers from solo voyagers to families board the boat for a safety talk, and then Captain Rick Hall navigates the Discovery between rock jetties and out into the ocean, where he connects with the loudspeaker. “Welcome to my office!” he says.

The comfortable ship has a heated cabin with seating alongside large windows — particularly nice on a cool day. Passengers wander the lower and upper deck, but we stay mostly up top, where the captain allows a delighted preschooler to steer the ship as he answers questions about Newport’s fishing industry. He’d just retired from fishing, Hall tells me, but missed the ocean and so signed on to pilot the Discovery. 

He helps us identify vessel types and even points out one of the most divisive catches on the Oregon Coast: the slimy hagfish.

As we sail under the graceful green arches of the art deco-inspired Yaquina Bay Bridge, we learn about the region’s two lighthouses. A red-painted dome atop a white two-story surrounded by fir and spruce forests comes into view first. It’s the Yaquina Bay Lighthouse, built in 1871 at the mouth of the Yaquina River. Soon after, we see the 93-foot-tall white Yaquina Head Lighthouse — constructed the following year in a more advantageous location — on a basalt headland just north of Newport.

Emily Wallingford and Tabby Hommel, the two naturalists on staff, keep passengers entertained on the two-hour journey through Newport Bay and into the Pacific Ocean. They point out gleaming black cormorants and whiskery Pacific harbor seals, and invite volunteers to help bait crab pots. On the deck, we observe tiny plankton under a microscope. When the crew hauls up pots full of Oregon Dungeness and red-rock crabs, they teach us how to identify differences and share interesting tidbits like the extraordinary power of these crustaceans, who can regenerate their legs when necessary.

“Slime eels, a delicacy in Korea,” Hall says, gesturing toward the telltale bright-red buckets.

Baiting crab pots (Photos by Jonathan Smith)

Crabs aren’t the only marine creature with a superpower, either. “Air can shoot out of a whale’s blowhole at 300 miles an hour,” notes Wallingford.

Gray whales are a big draw for the boat tour. These marine mammals — which can grow to 49 feet long and weigh over 80,000 pounds — migrate from Baja California, Mexico, up to Alaska from late March until June, and back down the Oregon Coast again in December and January. If you miss the migrations, you can often see some of the 200 gray whales that hang out around Newport from June to September. Though we don’t spot any whales on this particular cruise, we learn all about them.

The captain pilots the ship back to the bay, past restaurants and processing plants. We watch fishermen hauling out bins of fish and Oregon pink shrimp from their boats, as sea lions lounge in the sun on a nearby outcropping of rock. Thanks to our guides, we can confidently say they are California, not Steller, sea lions. It’s easy to see they are darker in color and smaller than the Stellers we had seen earlier. My husband and I leave the tour with a better understanding of the wildlife, geography, history and industry informing this stretch of the Oregon Coast. 

Cruising past sea lions near shore (Photo by Jonathan Smith)

Travel Tips for the First-Timer

Visitors can book a cruise through Marine Discovery Tours’ website or by phone year-round, weather permitting. The tours take place from March to September, or as long as the dry weather holds out. The outfitter offers group and customized tours as well. 

The boat features an accessible ramp that’s friendly to any wheels, including strollers, and easy to navigate if you use assists like a cane. I advise that guests wear sturdy shoes and layers, including a rain jacket and waterproof hat, and bring along sunscreen. A decent pair of binoculars enables close-up study of sea lions and fishing vessels. Bring cash to tip your exuberant naturalist guides. 

Afterward, you’ll definitely want to stop by the Marine Discovery Center’s ocean-themed gift shop for a soda and souvenirs. Then take a stroll along Newport’s Historic Bayfront with its boutiques, candy shops and restaurants featuring the catch of the day.  

Local Ocean Seafoods (Photo by Jeremy Burke / Oregon Coast Visitor Association)

Where to Eat and Stay

Savor steamer clams or grilled albacore-tuna kabobs at Local Ocean Seafoods, just steps away from Marine Discovery Tours’ headquarters. Most seafood comes from local fishermen docked across the road. Out-of-town visitors can ship the catch of the day back home by next-day air. Enjoy locally brewed ales at Newport Brewing Company’s lively restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating. Each indoor table features photos and videos of the Oregon Coast to admire while you’re waiting for rockfish tacos.

Can’t get enough of Newport’s bayfront vibe? Stay in one of the ocean-view rooms at Anchor Pier Lodge and wake up to the calls of seagulls and barking sea lions. For literary lodgings, don’t miss the Sylvia Beach Hotel, on a walkable bluff in nearby Nye Beach. Couples or families with older children can reserve a room with decor inspired by Ken Kesey, J.K. Rowling or Dr. Seuss, depending on your taste in reading material.

Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area visitor center (Photo courtesy of Bob Wick / BLM)

Learn More About Oregon’s Waterways

You can find guided boat tours almost everywhere in Oregon. In Southern Oregon, Momentum River Expeditions offers rafting and stand-up paddleboard tours out of Ashland and Medford from June to September. Choose half-day or multi-day guided river adventures with pick-up and drop-off at your hotel.

In Oregon City, eNRG Kayaking invites visitors to paddle year-round on a guided tour to Willamette Falls — the second-largest waterfall by volume in the U.S. — just 13 miles south of Portland. Paddlers learn about the herons, osprey, salmon and sturgeon that live in this dynamic waterway as they explore the calm and peaceful area above the falls.

Stop by the visitor center at Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area, just 3.5 miles north of Newport, to learn about the area’s seabirds and marine life. Take a ranger-led tour or set out on your own to explore tide pools and the lighthouse with the kid-friendly Agents of Discovery educational app. 

About The

Melissa Hart
Melissa Hart is the author of two STEM-related kids' novels--Avenging the Owl and Daisy Woodworm Changes the World. Her nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, Smithsonian, CNN, National Geographic Kids, and other publications. She enjoys long-distance running and cycling, kayaking, hiking and taking pictures of Oregon's fascinating fungi and lichen. You can learn more at melissahart.com.

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