CORVALLIS, Ore. - A new license plate featuring a gray whale and her calf likely will be available to Oregon drivers by summer 2017.
This project is sponsored by the Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institute and enthusiasm for it is running high, said Bruce Mate, director of the institute.
"Everybody I've shown the plate design to has loved it," said Mate, whose institute will receive $35 from the Oregon Department of Transportation every time a vehicle owner spends $40 to buy the plate.
The money will go toward whale research, graduate student education and public outreach.
The license plate depicts the cow-calf pair on a two-tone blue background that emulates sea and sky. In the upper left corner is a lighthouse, and across the bottom it reads "Coastal Playground."
Renowned wildlife illustrator Pieter Folkens created the lifelike whale images, originally for a poster for the Marine Mammal Institute, which is part of OSU's College of Agricultural Sciences.
"They're extremely detailed," Mate said. "You can see every barnacle."
The institute paid an application fee of $5,000 to ODOT to begin the license plate process, Mate said, and will pay another $80,000 to cover production costs. In addition, it needs to turn in an "expression of interest" from at least 3,000 vehicle owners stating they plan to buy the plate. Oregon Rep. David Gomberg has helped develop and advance this initiative, which should help promote coastal tourism.
As part of the process to gain public support, 30,000 flyers will be distributed along the coast by Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department volunteers helping out during the annual weeklong "Whale Watching Spoken Here" celebration that runs between Christmas and New Year's. Each flyer contains an expression-of-interest form.
There will be volunteers at all Oregon coastal headlands to help visitors see southward-migrating gray whales. Between 10,000 and 25,000 whale watchers interact with the volunteers each year during the week between Dec. 25 and Jan. 1, Mate said.
Interest can also be registered online at http://mmi.oregonstate.edu/whaleplate. No financial commitment is required, but it's asked that only those serious about buying a Coastal Playground plate register.
"It's a great plate and promotes coastal tourism and just a healthy image for Oregon," Mate said. "I expect a lot of people will like it, and it's a way for people to inexpensively support marine mammals."
It's not necessary to wait for a vehicle's registration to need renewal, or buy a new car, to purchase the Coastal Playground plate, Mate noted. For $40, a new plate can be ordered at any time without affecting the vehicle's registration cycle.
"This plate is a joyful celebration," Mate said. "Gray whales were on the Endangered Species List because of exploitation, and now they're the only whale species to have been removed from the list because they've recovered. And they're Oregon's flagship large whale. Ninety-five percent of the whales you see from shore are gray whales."
Visible from the coastline year-round, gray whales migrate past Oregon in both directions on their annual journey between Alaska and Baja California. From late April to mid June, northward-migrating females and their calves stay close to shore to avoid predation from killer whales - so close, Mate says, "you could practically skip a stone out to them."
During the first week in January, the peak time for the southern migration, gray whales pass by Oregon viewing points at an average rate of 35 whales per hour.
Mate said he is banking on the enduring mystique of whales to help the Coastal Playground plate pay off for the Marine Mammal Institute.
"Whales are huge, they're warm-blooded, they live in an environment we wouldn't do well in," Mate said. "They're really easy to emote with."
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