Humpback Whales’ Homecoming In Virginia Beach Is A “Big” Deal This Winter

Thursday, January 17, 2013 - by Kari Journigan

They’re back again! This winter, Virginia Beach has seen the return of some its favorite – and largest – guests, whales. While humpback whale sightings are common for the area, the 2011/2012 winter season brought impressive numbers of sightings of humpbacks, as well as fin and minke whales. This year’s mild temperatures and plentiful food, however, may be enticing the old friends back to the Virginia Beach coast for yet another busy winter of sightings.

The Virginia Aquarium’s Winter Wildlife Boat Trips kicked off on Dec. 27, and since then, 24 out of 27 excursions have seen humpback whales, an 89% sighting rate. These gentle giants wow visitors with behaviors including breaching, spyhopping (when a whale rises and holds position partially out of the water) and lobtailing (when a whale lifts its flukes out of the water). On two boat trips, humpback whales were close enough to the boat for guests to smell their “whale breath,” an odor that is said to be quite distinct. On a few others, the creatures have demonstrated their feeding behaviors, with one sighting of bubble netting (when a whale uses its bubbles to corral fish), one of the more rare whale talents to be observed. In addition to the humpbacks, a minke whale also has been sighted. Last year, the aquarium’s Winter Wildlife Boat Trips experienced a great season with a 78% sighting rate. 

On a trip last week, guests spotted three fluking humpback whales. According to Virginia Aquarium Educator Janet Schroeder who was onboard, it was the whales’ presentation that made “a magical moment in time.” She explained, “After 30 minutes into the trip, the boat moved closer to shore where we spotted a second humpback. This one showed its fluke and was nearly all white on the bottom. It was almost time for us to move on when the whale disappeared and suddenly surfaced a few yards square behind the boat. The whale flipped its tail high into the air for the world to see. The span of the fluke was as wide as the back of the boat."

During the Winter Wildlife Boat Trips, a trained Virginia Aquarium Educator, such as Janet, narrates the tour, which departs from Rudee Inlet and enters the Atlantic Ocean, traveling north along the resort area and its famed boardwalk up to the Cape Henry Lighthouse at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. In addition to whales, guests on the trips usually see brown pelicans, northern gannets, double-crested cormorants and other sea birds, all feeding on schools of fish.

Humpback whales have long been passing by the shores of Virginia Beach, due to the food-rich mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and warmer Atlantic Ocean waters. Humpbacks can weigh up to 40 tons and range up to 52 feet long.  In addition to humpback whales, fin whales, another member of the Rorqual family, also migrate along the Virginia Beach coast.  Fin whales, which are the second largest animal on the planet after the blue whale, are known as the “greyhounds of the sea” because they can reach speeds of up to 23 mph.  These massive marine animals can measure up to 79 feet long and weigh up to 70 tons, which is almost the weight of two fully loaded 18-wheelers.

Tours are $28 for adults and $24 for children ages 4-11. For tour times or more information, visit www.VirginiaAquarium.com. For those interested in combining whale-watching with a Virginia Beach getaway, the Winter Wildlife Boat Trip vacation package includes three days/two nights hotel accommodations, tickets for a Winter Wildlife Boat Trip, admission to the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center and passes to a movie at the Aquarium’s 3D IMAX Theater. 


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