January-February 2017 | Featured Article

Whale Watching in Virginia Beach

Not many people know these graceful giants can be spotted in the winter

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Fisherman Brian Lockwood, who snapped this photo, shares tips for finding whales with boat tour companies. Photos by Kristin Rayfield

“Geez! This horizon line is so sharp!” my friend Carol remarks as the 68-foot catamaran we’ve boarded with 30 other passengers heads north toward the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. It’s February and my senses focus as I breathe in the crystalline air. To our left, Virginia Beach’s hotels rise like a strip of pastel and tan LEGO bricks.

We’re about half a mile offshore and we all fall silent as the boat slows. If we’re quiet, the crew advises, we may hear the telltale blow—Pffwissshhh!—before we see it. Then we may spot a dark back fin, a flipper, or even flukes (a tail) breaking the blue surface.

Although hats, coats and gloves are essential gear for these two-hour-plus whale-watching excursions—on this day the temperature is about 45 degrees, but it’s colder on the water—I still think winter is the best time of year to visit Virginia Beach. Aside from a few power walkers and scavengers sweeping the shoreline with metal detectors, the beaches are empty. Off season, you can take your dog for long walks in the sand.

Plus, that’s when the whales are in town. From mid-December and into early March (usually), humpback whales—and sometimes fin, minke and critically endangered North Atlantic right whales—come to feast on menhaden, bay anchovies and other schooling fish where the bay meets the Atlantic.

Whale lovers have their choice of two whale-spotting tours off Virginia Beach in season. Maximizing our chances, I’ve booked us on both boats, back-to-back.

If you don’t spot a whale on a Rudee Tours outing, you can ride again for free. Photos by Kristin Rayfield

“The whales are kind of like teenagers,” says Kristin Rayfield, one of the first mates on the Rudee Flipper, our first boat of the day. “They just hang out and eat.”

Indeed, most of the whales that have taken up temporary residence in the area are juvenile humpback whales that are not yet able to mate, she says. (The adults head south to the West Indies to mate and calve.)

During the outing, we’re advised to look for congregating seabirds, mostly northern gannets. They reveal where the fish—and likely the whales—are swimming just under the surf. While the number of whales here varies each season, I’ve been lucky, with clear sightings of the graceful giants three of the four times I’ve made the trip down. It’s an excellent way to combat both cabin fever and nature deprivation.

Each time, their stately presence washes over me like a benediction. (I’ve also been known to listen to their otherworldly whale songs in my spare time.) Thar she blows! I whisper to myself as I hear and glimpse a telltale plume of vapor. A shiver of awe runs through the crowd, silencing all chatter as we move to that side of the boat and methodically scan the quadrant of water where we expect the humpback to resurface to breathe.

Rayfield estimates that this particular whale is 55 feet long and weighs over 40 tons. For the next few minutes, it generously surfaces several times.

Humpback whales are common winter visitors in the waters off Virginia Beach. Photos by Kristin Rayfield

Humpbacks, a common winter visitor here, are especially viewer-friendly because of their feeding habits. As filter feeders, they take in huge gulps of water, filtering the water out through their baleen while retaining its riches of plankton, krill and small fish. And they need to come up for air.

“They’re the most acrobatic of the baleen whales,” Rayfield says as the mammals maneuver around us. Humpbacks also occasionally burst free of the relatively shallow water (here it ranges from 30 to 60 feet deep) and hurl themselves into the air—a feat I’m still hoping to see. At one point, we have four separate whales taking turns surfacing around the boat.
After docking back at Rudee Inlet, Carol and I make the short drive over to the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center’s dock on Owls Creek, just in time for our second outing of the day.

Lots of families with children board the Atlantic Explorer, a 65-foot catamaran, and soon we are cruising into the lovely cove and wetlands area behind the aquarium, where we instantly spy a bald eagle atop a dead tree. A few feathery clouds accent the blue sky, and the wind drops as the temperature inches up. By now we don’t need gloves.

From the get-go, this tour focuses more deeply on the scientific aspects of local flora and fauna, delving into current research and the characteristics of local habitats. By comparison, this makes the first tour seem a tad touristy.

Owls Creek is a true salt marsh, meaning the only fresh water it gets is from rain. (The aquarium uses the creek water in many of its 800,000 gallons of exhibits.) Evergreen loblolly pines and wax myrtle trees line the pristine cove, having adapted to the brackish water. Alexis Rabon, the aquarium’s boat trip coordinator, encourages us to look for seals (mainly harbor and gray) moving through the marsh, noting that they “look like puppy dogs coming up out of the water.” River otters also make an occasional appearance, and we can see mussels and oysters in the low tide.

Rabon’s narration is rich with whale facts and statistics, and with the addition of charts and animal artifacts, this tour feels like a floating classroom. A portion of the ticket sales benefit local conservation and rescue efforts for stranded marine animals.

Volunteers and staff circulate through the 50 adults and children on board, sharing pieces of baleen that we can see up close and touch. The thin, hair-like filters, we’re told, are made of the same substance as fingernails.