Whale Watching in Virginia Beach
“Whale watching in Virginia Beach?”
The looks from my friends were incredulous as I told them about my experience whale watching a few years ago. Every winter, from December to March, several pods of humpback whales migrate from their summer homes of the coast of Maine and Nova Scotia and spend the winter months feeding in the rich waters where the Chesapeake Bay opens into the Atlantic Ocean. Whale sightings have been plentiful and frequent the past few years but despite this, one of Virginia’s greatest winter experiences remains a secret even to many locals. On a clear but chilly January weekend I brought my friends down to the Virginia Aquarium for a winter wildlife boat trip so they could see the whales for themselves.
The Virginia Aquarium is a popular stop for families and visitors to Virginia Beach year round and we met up at the dock along side the aquarium to start the day’s adventures. Even before leaving the dock we got our first glimpse of wildlife in the form of a bald eagle in the tall coastal pines. The boat pushed off and we started through Rudee Inlet, a small estuary that I’ve become quite familiar with as I’ve spent the past few summers exploring on my paddle board. A rocky jetty denoted the transition from inlet to ocean and with a quick turn north we headed up to the Chesapeake Bay.
The boat trip afforded great views of the famous Virginia Beach Oceanfront, the crowds of summer replaced by a few dedicated joggers on the boardwalk. The 50 degree day was mild for January but bundling up in warm layers and thick boots was well advised as it felt a good deal colder out on the ocean. The boat was staffed with knowledgeable volunteers giving information about the humpback whales and other wildlife in the area. Aside from humpback whales both fin and right whales have been spotted. Seabirds are also a common sight, with pelicans, gulls, cormorants and Northern gannets(whose en masse dive hunting look like a waterfall of birds) are frequent visitors to the Virginia coast.
As the boat neared the Chesapeake Bay, in view of the beaches and lighthouses of Fort Story, we saw our first sign of the animals we had come to see. A spray broke the surface of the water, the exhale from the blowhole came just before the telltale hump followed by the tail as this gentle giant returned to the depths. We learned that the tail, or fluke, is unique to each whale and is one of the ways the Aquarium’s marine biologists identify and track whales. We spent the next hour surrounded by humpbacks, with at least four individuals, as they performed their graceful water ballet around the boat. While we didn’t get the money shot of a breaching juvenile mid-air the surfacing of these humpbacks were no less spectacular.
Three hours after we left we returned to the dock there was a final sighting of the bald eagle who had bid us bon voyage. My friends, with windswept hair and chilled fingers were beaming with smiles ear to ear, now witness to what may be the best secret in Virginia Beach.