It’s a frigid afternoon aboard the Atlantic Explorer, a 65-by-31-foot catamaran, capable of fitting a crew of 132 people over its two hulls, which provide a stable platform able to handle rougher conditions during storms with heavy seas. With no squall in sight, we bid ourselves bon voyage from the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center’s dock at Owl Creek in Virginia Beach, traversing Rudee Inlet and a fleet of yachts and fishing boats as well as bald eagles nested among the treetops and oysters strewn about the shores. But, we’ve embarked on this journey, led by the Virginia Aquarium’s staff of marine experts, to seek out a far more imposing species that calls the deep blue sea home—whales.
These Virginia Aquarium Sea Adventures Boat Trips, beginning at Thanksgiving and carrying on throughout the winter to early March, bring passengers up close with wildlife on the coast of Virginia Beach. “By allowing folks to have a personal connection and experience viewing these animals in their natural habitat, it inspires them to want to be able to do what they can to help,” explains Alexis Rabon, boat trip coordinator, who indicates that learning more about these creatures in a direct way enables us to do more to protect the environment and the animals themselves. A portion of the sales from Sea Adventures Boat Trips contributes to initiatives of the Virginia Aquarium to further its research and conservation efforts and the work of its Stranding Response Team.
Despite a wind chill and overcast skies, the conditions are ideal for catching a glimpse of whales today, as Atlantic Explorer makes haste beyond the 1st Street Jetty at the Oceanfront and between barges loaded with transatlantic freight headed to and from port. We’re not far offshore from the same beaches that host hoards of tourists in the summer months in the vacation destination; these migratory whales are seemingly right here in the resort city’s own backyard (or, if you will, backyard swimming pool). Last year the Sea Adventure Boat Trips yielded a 100 percent success rate for whale sightings, indicating an optimistic outlook and turnaround for certain whale species that were once considered endangered or critically vulnerable.
The most common whale species seen on these outings are humpback whales, measuring up to 52 feet and capable of weighing an upwards of 79,000 pounds.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) currently estimates that there are between 10,000 to 11,000 humpback whales in the North Atlantic Ocean, which have made a considerable comeback from the days when they tragically dwindled from whaling. However, while most humpback whales no longer need endangered species protection, researchers are still concerned with recent mortality rates within the area.
During these trips, spectators also might see steadfast and swift fin whales and minke whales, but they are more of a challenge for the naked eye due to their agility and breakneck speeds. The North Atlantic right whale can also make an appearance, though this is only during rare occasions due to its critically endangered status. Since whales are mammals, they must head to the surface to breathe air and exhale water from their blowholes, which is an opportune time for sightseeing before they plunge and hold their breath.
I’m at the bow of the ship in anticipation, giving myself a vantage point for anything that may emerge from the water, as we cruise to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, with the 23-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel on the horizon and the Cape Henry Lighthouse shining its beacon through the cloak of clouds. We come in contact with bottlenose dolphins, the sociable mascot of Virginia Beach and a focal point for the aquarium’s summertime Dolphin Discoveries Sea Adventures Boat Trip. By air, seabirds nosedive into the water, scourging their prey with their talons. Hours into our odyssey and the wishes for whales seem to slip by in the ocean, as though they were an elusive mariner’s mirage of our desires lost at sea.
Rabon shares with me that during the Sea Adventure Boat Trips the aquarium uses a designated data collector with a GPS unit, hitting a waypoint wherever there’s a viewing of a whale. Photo identification of individual animals helps their research and conservation division, which studies the whales’ migration patterns, their seasonal behaviors and how the waterways serve as supplemental feeding areas.
Though retracing these areas marked by these waypoints improves the prospects of seeing whales, it’s still a matter of dealing with Mother Nature.
As we circumnavigate back to the 1st Street Jetty and Croatan Beach, suddenly, we spot a whale’s footprint within the water, an indication of a breach of the surface where the flow of the ocean has been disrupted. The stench of dead fish fills the area, another telltale sign of a whale—it’s the smell of their breath carried in the air. The crew in its entirety, families and staff jump to the Atlantic Explorer’s railings—there they are, two stunning and majestic humpback whales, the colossus of the sea, a gentle giant peering its fins from the water composed of unequivocal gracefulness. I’m completely awestruck in the sheer enormity of seeing these creatures dwarf us in comparison. Buoying at the surface, water spouts like a geyser from their blowholes, draping the sea in a mist.
Humpback whales are a whale watcher’s dream, Rabon explains. They’re more surface active and acrobatic, as they dive down and plunge to the depths of the ocean and reemerge to spend time in our environment hunting and foraging. They’ll even echo songs to one another in an indication of their behavior. “We’re really lucky here in our area that we do get a chance to see so many of the different feeding stocks coming through,” Rabon shares.
In the warmer months of the year, North Atlantic humpback whales take provisions in the feeding grounds of the Gulf of Maine, Newfoundland and Labrador, and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence in Canada, Iceland, Western Greenland and Norway while ensuring their blubber stores are thick for the migration south during the winter. In their breeding grounds of the Caribbean Sea near the West Indies and Dominican Republic, they’re essentially fasting while they mate and give birth to their calves. Here in Virginia Beach though, there are both reproductively mature humpbacks that won’t breed every year and juveniles not yet ready to reproduce that are devouring their food source of krill and a variety of small fish.
At sundown, the two humpbacks we see frolic near the Atlantic Explorer vanish for a moment before a theatric reappearance. We keep observing for some time before the boat must head in for the day, returning a captivated crew with fortunate tales from our seafaring whale watching excursion.
Make your plans for your whale watching adventure at VirginiaAquarium.com